INDIANAPOLIS – The IHSAA Class 3-A girls basketball championship game will be a catfight in every sense of the word.
The NorthWood Panthers and Salem Lions will sharpen its collective claws for battle Saturday for the coveted state trophy on the big stage at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. For NorthWood, its return to the championship game has been 21 years in the making. For Salem, it is making its first-ever state championship appearance. Let the games begin.
NorthWood is riding high after holding one of the top scoring teams in the state, Benton Central, to 40 points under its season average in a 36-22 defensive gem last week at the LaPorte Semi-state. The Panthers (27-3) have lost just once since Thanksgiving week, which the team avenged the stumble with a 44-38 win over Mishawaka Marian at the Jimtown Regional.
In its six wins in the tournament thus far, NorthWood is allowing just 33 points per game, staggering considering both Benton and Marian were ranked in the top 15 in scoring in the state, including their losses to the Panthers.
“I think we’re playing at a high level, but we keep raising the bar each week knowing the opponents are getting tougher,” said NorthWood guard Reagan Hartman. “We know Salem is a solid team that will come out playing for a state championship. You won’t get a slow team playing in an environment like that, we have to find a way to slow them down. That’s what you do when you play championship level basketball.”
Where Hartman and NorthWood will have to continue the pressure will be on the wing for Salem. The Lions (25-3) rely on its guards to do its damage. Karly Sweeney leads the team with 12 points per contest, but to focus on just Sweeney would be foolish. Natalie Noel averages 10.2 points per night, but the contributions of Hope Tomlinson and Abigail Ratts, both scoring 9.9, give Salem virtually four girls who can lead the team at any given time. Ratts is the best shooter of the group, hitting over 54 percent of her shots from the floor, but is just a 58 percent free throw shooter.
Where NorthWood was able to expose Benton was inside, and it was no surprise it happened. With 6-1 Maddy Payne and 6-0 Kate Rulli able to maneuver at will in the post, the Bison had absolutely no answers as the two NorthWood towers combined for 25 points and 15 rebounds. Salem does have 6-2 Lettie Nice, who brings five points and seven rebounds a night, but as Benton head coach David Baxter noted after their loss to NorthWood, Salem could be in trouble.
“After what I saw today, I’d give the advantage to NorthWood simply because of their size,” Baxter said at the semi-state. Benton played Salem in the semi-state in 2019 and were victorious. “We couldn’t dial up anything to stop those two, and then if we did, their guards were so good, and were able to knock down some shots. They are going to propose a lot of problems for Salem on both ends of the court.”
While Baxter’s words echoed those of five coaches before him in the tournament, NorthWood head coach Adam Yoder isn’t strolling into Banker’s Life Fieldhouse expecting to just do layup drills en route to a title. Salem comes in ranked No. 1 in Class 3-A (NorthWood No. 7), and have lost just once going back to the Hall of Fame Classic over Christmas Break. The school of 535 is situated a short drive north of Louisville and is a charter member of the IHSAA going all the way back to 1904. The school hasn’t ever won a girls basketball title. All the more reason to create the ambiance.
“I have a lot of confidence in our ability to put together a game plan and execute it,” Yoder said. “But let’s face it, there is a reason they are number one in the polls and the Sagarin Rating. They are similar to us in the sense that they have balanced scoring like we do. The role players for us are going to have to step up. You just know that one of us will have a kid step up that nobody expects, and that’s the fun of these games is to see how the kids step up and handle the pressure on the big stage.
“I think there’s no question that they are the number one team in the state, but we’ll be confident, prepared and play good defense. Those things give us a chance every time out.”