By Mike Deak
SYRACUSE – The magic finally ran out for NorthWood.
After pulling two upsets under strained circumstances, the clock struck midnight for the defending state champions as Lakeland ended its own generation of misery in a 46-33 Laker win over the Panthers Saturday night in the championship game of the Wawasee Girls Basketball Sectional.
The story had unfolded all week. Close games in every contest saw Lakeland and NorthWood need some big time heroics to keep advancing. Both teams used late shots to keep their seasons alive in both the quarterfinals and semi-finals. But Saturday night it was Lakeland that played better in the stretch run that locked up its first sectional title since 1996.
The two teams battled to a 28-27 scoreline after three quarters, Lakeland up one. Lakeland’s Friday night hero, Madison Keil, showed up again when it mattered most, hitting a three to start the scoring in the fourth, then later hit another to push Lakeland’s lead to nine, it’s biggest lead since the first quarter. Keil later hit another bucket as the writing was forming on the wall prompting NorthWood head coach Mark Heeter to start subbing out his seniors one at a time to get the ovation they deserved.
“I told her, along with two other girls, Alivia Rasler and Peyton Hartsough, and Madison that they had to step up with the absence of faith,” noted Lakeland head coach Dale Gearheart. “They’ve done that the last three or four games. I told Madison when she went in, you have four fouls but you still need to shoot the ball. When she gets open, she is pretty good at it.”
Keil led the Lakers with 17 points, and LaGrange County’s all-time leading scorer, Bailey Hartsough, added 14 points to her decorated résumé.
“Unfortunately there in the fourth quarter we lost track of Keil, who had a great game tonight. Five threes, that just killed us,” Heeter said. “We couldn’t hit anything. We had five possessions in a row where we were down one and just couldn’t get over the hump.”
NorthWood led for just 37 seconds of the first half, but as it did against Wawasee and Tippecanoe Valley, scored in bunches to keep itself alive. Kendal Miller nailed three treys in the first half and wound up with 13 total points. It was a far cry from the career-high 30 she dropped on Tippecanoe Valley Friday night, but the threat to score was evident as Lakeland sold out on her on the perimeter.
Alea Minnich, listed as the No. 3 free throw shooter in the country with her 90 percent mark (per Max Preps), only got to the line once and missed a rare one. Minnich finished her night with 11 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and two assists. And along with three points and five rebounds from Bre Wise, the final core from the state team a year ago end a chapter in NorthWood history that will long be remembered. Even NorthWood’s rowdy student section, easily numbering close to 100, sat in disbelief for over 20 minutes after the game, none moving from their seats, as Lakeland carried on its celebration.
“I’m a superstitious guy and makes you wonder if I should have just stayed home and watched it again on TV,” offered Heeter in jest. “If we would have done any better, I don’t know. Maybe some of those shots would have gone in, maybe they still wouldn’t have. The kids played hard and congratulations to Lakeland, this is big for them. I’m happy for them.”
NorthWood, which endured four COVID stoppages during the season, including losing Heeter and assistant coach Gene Zurcher from the protocols a week before the tournament, wrap up 3-14.
Lakeland, which won it’s first-ever try against NorthWood in 14 contests, breaks the long drought of tournament agony. Avenging a sectional championship loss to NorthWood a season ago, the Lakers (20-7) will happily advance to the Jimtown Regional where it will meet Griffith (13-3) in the first game. South Bend Washington (19-5) and Kankakee Valley (13-10) will play in game two.