MIDDLEBURY — It’d be easy to look at the finish of Saturday night’s Northridge Sectional semifinal between Warsaw and Elkhart Central and say that the Blue Blazers’ 4-0 spurt in the final seconds made the difference.
It did in fact represent most of the final margin in the Lady Tigers’ 32-27 loss, but Warsaw coach Lenny Krebs viewed his team’s season-ending defeat differently.
“Everybody is going to come back and look at the last couple possessions of that game and talk about the steal at the end and the layup, but the game could’ve been decided before then. We had our opportunities prior to that. We just didn’t take advantage of some opportunities presented to us,” explained Krebs.
“That’s what we’ve been stressing to these girls all year long — every possession counts. The further you advance in the tournament, the more magnified every possession becomes. We just didn’t finish some possessions early in the game that cost us some opportunities to not just tie a game but build a lead. We’re not going to blame that on the last couple possessions. Unfortunately, we were in a position where those last couple possessions become even more important because of not taking care of some possessions earlier.”
Whether or not the game was won or lost in the closing seconds, Central sophomore Kaitlyn Costner made some big plays for her team in the home stretch.
With her team holding onto a tentative, 28-27 lead following a Kensie Ryman triple from the top of the key with 1:42 on the clock, Costner’s one-and-one with 26 ticks remaining gave the Blazers a little breathing room and Warsaw fewer options. Her steal and fast break layup with just 14 seconds to go essentially provided the backbreaker and brought the score to its final margin.
“We just said ‘We’ve just got to make a play, and I don’t care who makes a play. We’ve got to make a play, but most importantly you’ve just got to have fun,’” explained Central coach Will Coatie. “There were a couple possessions in there where we were just so tight and timid. You’ve just got to relax and have fun. Whatever happens, happens, but you’ve just got to enjoy yourself and leave it all out there when you’re playing.”
But as Krebs insisted, the Tigers had opportunities long before Costner’s late heroics. Warsaw knocked down just 3-of-14 shots from the floor in the first half. Kacilyn Krebs’ two big 3-pointers in the first quarter helped keep her team in it, but a run of six straight points at the start of the second period gave Central a 14-7 advantage and a lead the Blazers would never relinquish.
“It was important that we got off to a good start. It was important that we follow our game plan,” Coatie said. “Like we told our kids ‘If we get down, we’re not out. You’ve just got to continue to play both ends of the floor. You’ve got to play together.’ The game of basketball is a game of runs. If they make a run, then our run is going to come.
“We did a nice job holding the lead and playing within ourselves.”
Part of Warsaw’s offensive woes started on the defensive end. With the Tigers packing in a 2-3 zone to keep Central out of the paint, Krebs thought their passiveness on that end of the floor translated to some passive offense early. Warsaw players settled for the outside shot again and again in the first half and converted only 2-of-10 3-pointers, both Kacilyn’s treys in the opening stanza.
“These girls struggle with playing different paces on opposite ends of the floor. We wanted to try to pack things in on the defensive end, and that naturally led to some passive offensive possessions in the first half,” Krebs explained. “I wasn’t thrilled with our aggression on the offensive end. I felt like there were times we were settling for shots. That was kind of coming from the defensive end.”
The Tigers were much more productive during a low-possession second half.
Kacilyn’s third 3-pointer of the night on a Ryman reversal at the start of the third period cut Warsaw’s deficit to 16-12. But Coatie opted to pull the ball out on his team’s first possession of the half to force Warsaw backcourters to come out to defend and open up that 2-3 zone. The Blazers burned more than two minutes off the clock before Krebs gave his players the go-ahead to challenge Central’s guards, and the Tigers did a pretty good defensive job in the second half, holding their opponents to only 3-of-11 shooting from the floor. Warsaw converted 7-of-11 shots in the half, meanwhile, but the Blazers capitalized on 12 trips to the foul line with nine makes to hold the Tigers off. Warsaw tied it up twice in the fourth — the first time on Ryman’s 3 at the 5:45 stop of the clock and the second time on sister Maddie Ryman’s 3 from the wing with 4:31 to go — but was never quite able to get out front.
“That zone kind of gave us a little trouble, so I kind of felt like if we just hold it, hold our composure a little bit, maybe they’ll come out, give us something that we can probably get a good look at. It worked to our advantage for a little bit, kind of slowed us down a little bit so we can re-compose ourselves and get refocused on what we needed to do,” said Coatie of his decision to hold the ball at the start of the second half.
Trinitee Harris finished with a team-high 14 points and two steals for Central, while Yiesha Williams collected a near double-double of eight points and 10 rebounds. The Blazers (18-6) advanced to Monday’s championship game opposite Plymouth, which won a 37-36 thriller over Concord in the early semifinal Saturday.
Warsaw got nine points from Kacilyn, six from Kenzie — who also passed out four assists — and five from Maddie, but the rest of the Tigers lineup was mostly silent. Warsaw closed the season at 15-6 and must say goodbye to Maddie and fellow senior Halle Shipp.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together. Went on a midseason run where we ran off about eight or nine straight wins playing really well. Like any season, you have an injury with Kaylee Patton. We tried to put the pieces back together and regroup, and the thing I can say about this group is they kept after it. Our seniors have been phenomenal. Both of those seniors have been great with their leadership and helping these kids with where we want to go. That was my message at the end — ‘At some point here soon, Warsaw is going to win a championship, and you guys showed us what we need in order to get there,’” said Krebs.
“It hurts right now. It’s hard to see the progress that we’ve made throughout the course of the season because the frustration and the hurt, it clouds our vision right now. Eventually that hurt is going to fade away, and we’re going to see the progress that we made this season. We had a top 40, 45 strength of schedule. We won 15 games with a youthful lineup. The coach in me is ready to take a break, but at the same time I’m excited about the future and what lies ahead of us.”