By Mike Deak
SYRACUSE – Lakeland needed a big second half rally while NorthWood had to hold off Wawasee’s late surge as play opened at the Class 3-A Wawasee Girls Basketball Sectional Tuesday night.
NorthWood 51, Wawasee 48
There was every reason under the sun for NorthWood to fold the tent. Coming off its fourth COVID stoppage of the season, not having half its coaching staff, carrying the stigma of just having one win coming into the tournament, all the excuses were within reach.
But so was the cliché phrase, ‘we’ve got nothing to lose.’
A stunning start to the game had NorthWood grab a 20-10 lead, then move to a 33-21 bulge at the half. Alea Minnich had 15 points at the break, and combined with 13 Wawasee turnovers, the tone was being set that NorthWood had nothing to lose.
“I know these girls just need to see a smile sometimes,” began Hilary Laidig. The NorthWood volleyball coach was filling in as head coach Tuesday while head coach Mark Heeter and assistant coach Gene Zurcher are out with COVID. Heeter was watching via live stream and Tweeting his excitement into the night. Laidig coached all five of NorthWood’s starting lineup in volleyball in the fall. “I feel like we have a good relationship, and maybe being able to stay calm. I know who they are. They’re good, they’re good in pressure situations.”
That 12-point lead, however, would disappear quickly as Wawasee opened the second half on a 10-0 run. A few moments later, Jada Carter hit a three to put Wawasee up 36-35, but the Panthers responded with a 7-0 run of its own to take a six-point lead shortly into the fourth quarter.
What would ultimately doom Wawasee would be foul trouble, as right after Carter nailed a three to tie the game at 45, point guard Danielle Jenkins committed her fifth offense. Again, Wawasee hit a three to flip momentum, Emily Haines’ triple making it 48-47 Warriors, but Carter was then whistled for her fifth. In the middle of the fouling was Minnich hitting freebie after freebie.
In all, Minnich hit 15-16 free throws, but her only miss of the night left the score 50-48 with Wawasee a chance to tie or go ahead.
Haines had a clean look at a three, but her try from just in front of the Wawasee bench rattled out, and after taking verbal jabs all night, former Wawasee guard Abby Steiner hit 1-2 free throws to cap the NorthWood upset.
“We’re proud of these young ladies and the fight that they gave,” started Wawasee head coach Matt Carpenter. “At halftime, our frustration was twofold. One, we had way too many fouls. Two, we were turning the ball over left and right. We set ourselves up for a tough second half because of the foul trouble we had in the first half.”
In their final march after winning a state title last season, Minnich finished with 22 points despite making just three field goals. Kendal Miller was pesky in the backcourt, scoring 11 points but recording six steals and hounding both Jenkins and Carter on the perimeter. Bre Wise had seven points and a half dozen rebounds, and Steiner tossed in six points.
Laidig didn’t want to take credit for any of the win, but picked a good time to find the right combinations for a team needing a spark.
“Those three seniors, and Abby too, her coming in here against her old school, they really the last four days have picked up the intensity in practice,” Laidig said. “It just shows. They wanted to come out and make a statement.”
The Warriors close at 6-11, and while it is likely kicking itself at the missed opportunity, showed tremendous potential for the future. Carter ended with 14 points and three assists, Haines had 13 points and three boards, and Kennedy White had seven points and five rebounds. All three will return next season. Jenkins and Tate Cowan combined for eight points in their final game at the Teepee.
“We had the opportunity to play, and our girls cherished that opportunity to play and gave everything they had,” Carpenter said. “The fact that we reinvigorated our culture. As much as it stings for them in that lockerroom, and it stings for me, those girls are going to want to get into the gym tomorrow. That’s what I wanted to see, the willingness to get better, and that they cared for one another.”
NorthWood (2-13) will meet Tippecanoe Valley (13-8) in the second semi-final Friday night.
Lakeland 62, Central Noble 56
After splitting the two regular season matchups, Lakeland won the game that mattered most in the night’s first contest.
Trailing by double digits in the second half, Lakeland mounted a huge rally to knock out its Northeast Corner Conference rival.
Lakeland grabbed the lead for good after Madison Keil nailed a pair of consecutive three-pointers and Bailey Hartsough was money in crunch time, hitting eight straight free throws to ice the game. Hartsough finished with a game-high 28 points, going 14-18 from the free throw line, 10-11 in the fourth quarter. Keil had a career-high 17 points.
Central Noble, which moved up to Class 3-A after winning the 2-A title in 2018, will likely move back down to 2-A after Tuesday’s loss. Meghan Kiebel led the Cougars (17-6) with 17 points. Bridgett Gray and Lydia Andrews, the last of the holdovers from the state team, combined to score 24 points in their final high school games.
Lakeland (18-7) will get another NECC rival Friday when it meets West Noble (16-5) in game one.