LIGONIER — West Noble’s girls basketball team had had a shot at a few championships this season but fell a little short every time — a few key wins short of a Northeast Corner Conference title, one win short of the title at the Lady Chargers’ home holiday tournament. But they made the most of what could’ve been their final opportunity.
West Noble was just a little steadier at the start and at the finish, and the Chargers avenged that tournament championship loss to Tippecanoe Valley with a 41-39 reprisal for the Sectional 21 title on their home floor Monday night.
“We set our goals at the beginning of the year, and that was one of our goals. We didn’t accomplish some that we had set earlier in the conference, but as I told the girls, this is the grandest of all trophies,” said West Noble coach Dale Marano of Monday’s title. “If you’re going to win one, this is what you’re down to, right? We didn’t have any other choice, but this is the one you’re down to and this is the one we want to win.”
The two teams traded leads four times over a thrilling final period, and the game was all tied up at 39-39 with 1:37 left to play.
But a couple key turnovers by the Vikings and a Maddie Schermerhorn putback for a traditional three-point play put the Chargers out front with just seven seconds remaining. Valley got the ball where it needed to go — in senior Sophie Bussard’s hands — but as she dribbled across the timeline, a pair of West Noble defenders jumped trap on her out on the wing. Megan Godfrey ripped the ball out of Bussard’s hands, then wound down the remaining few seconds before the Charger bench poured onto the floor to celebrate just the program’s second-ever sectional championship and first since 1988.
“We had an opportunity. I think we had the rebound at one time, and she just kind of ripped it out of our hands there,” said Valley coach Chris Kindig of Schermerhorn’s game-winning three-point play. “She’s just a senior, a little bit stronger, a little bit bigger, a little bit more athletic and took the ball away from her and got the play. We had it in our hands. Really, I go back to the play before there and we got a foul down there underneath the basket on Sidney (Wagner), which I thought she had position. In a game like this, those calls go either way, and a couple of those just hurt us really bad.”
Schermerhorn was the difference in Monday’s title game, scoring just seven points, but she also ripped down eight rebounds, got into the middle of Valley’s zone to hand out four assists and grabbed a trio of steals in an all-around game. If anyone on his team was going to provide some late heroics, Marano wasn’t surprised that player was Schermerhon.
“We couldn’t ask for the ball to be in anyone else’s hands, quite honestly. We have a lot of great players, but she’s right at the top of the list and I think everybody understands that. She’s a clutch player, and it all worked out good for us,” he said.
Schermerhorn was one of six total seniors in the Charger lineup, while the only Valley senior to see the floor — and one of just two upperclassmen on the Vikings’ roster — was Bussard. That discrepancy in experience was evident at the finish of the game, but it was also evident at the start.
Valley’s younger crew surrendered five turnovers to West Noble pressure at the start of the game, and the Chargers capitalized with a 10-0 start. The Vikings settled in to run back with 11 points of their own, taking an 11-10 lead on Hayley Backus’ putback at the 6:54 stop of the second quarter. The combatants exchanged leads three more times and were twice tied over that period, but a 5-1 finish to the half gave the home team a 22-18 halftime advantage. Again Valley rallied back to take the lead, but, again, a 5-0 finish to the third stanza gave the Chargers a four-point cushion headed into the final period, setting the stage for a thriller in Ligonier.
“That’s kind of one of the concerns I had going into this game. What do they have, seven, eight seniors?” said Kindig. “We’ve got one senior that plays a lot and some girls that have never had a whole lot of sectional experience. I’m proud of the girls. Gritty tonight, hung in there, and we had our opportunities to win the basketball game.
“I think it was the same factor for us on Saturday night when we played Lakeland. They’re a little younger than us, and we jump out to an 18-3 lead. I think it was a similar type of situation, but we were OK once we settled down a little bit. Boy, you have the ball, tie basketball game, 25 seconds left or whatever it was to go. We turned the ball over. You can be disappointed in some of the calls we got, but we still had our opportunities there to win the basketball game. It’s just tough to take right now.”
Bussard put up a game-high 15 points to go with eight rebounds and two steals. Wagner put up 13 points for the Vikings, but West Noble’s production was a little deeper and a little more balanced. Godfrey and Tori Miller each put up nine points ahead of Lauren Burns’ eight and Schermerhorn’s seven. The Chargers got big 3-pointers from a total of five different players at key moments in the game. The Vikings finished without a single make in seven attempts from beyond the arc, meanwhile.
“We’ve won games this year without hitting any 3s. We’ve not typically been a real big 3-point shooting team this year, and they are. They rely on it a bunch,” explained Kindig. “The thing with them was that they hit some 3s in some really tough situations. And it wasn’t necessarily their normal shooters.”
While Monday’s outcome sparked a long-awaited celebration in Ligonier, it was a bitter pill for the Vikings. It was an especially tough closing note for Bussard, a two-time IFN Player of the Year and Southeast Missouri State signee, particularly given the backbreaking final play. When the ball — and the game — had been taken out of Bussard’s hands, the senior bowed to her knees alone on the sideline as West Noble players swirled around her in celebration. She remained motionless there for several seconds before her teammates came out to console her.
“Our defense all year has been tremendous. At the end of the game there we went as quick as we could with the players on the floor and we wanted to get to the spots as quick as we could. One of those spots was Sophie Bussard. She’s a tremendous player. We were very, very fortunate to stop her,” Marano said.
“Just disappointing for her. I think that’s probably the biggest thing,” said Kindig. “She worked so hard to get here, really brought this team along. She really brought this team along. They really kind of followed her, and as she played, they played well. But it really helped our confidence a lot. I’m disappointed for her to not have an opportunity to move on a little bit and see her play. I think we’re all a little disappointed that we don’t get to see her play again at the high school level.”
West Noble improves to 18-5 and advances to Saturday’s Columbia City Regional, where Marion awaits in the late semifinal at noon following the opening game between Angola and New Castle.
Valley bows out at 16-7, meanwhile. Bussard will leave some very big shoes to fill in the Vikings lineup, but the rest of the team’s young crew should be back after a season of steady growth.
“Obviously we’re going to miss her big time, but some of our younger players showed some things,” Kindig said. “Sidney Wagner, I thought played extremely well tonight. We graduate one player. We’re going to have to find some scoring somewhere, but other than that, I think if you look at a couple of our sophomores and juniors and where they’ve been and now where they’re at, how much they’ve improved over the last year or two, it’s just been tremendous. If we can continue that trend for those players we’ll have something next year. Excited about that.”