By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — Winning is ingrained in the DNA of the seniors on Western’s girls basketball squad.
Five of the seven seniors on the current roster entered high school after running the table with an undefeated record in their middle school days.
After a run to the Class 3A semistate as sophomores, last season’s 40-36 loss in the sectional championship game to host Benton Central was a burning memory they never allowed to fizzle out.
“We definitely took that and learned from it,” senior Carley O’Neal said. “Last year was a test of whether we were ready or not. We weren’t.”
Saturday night’s sectional final rematch with the Bison at Western’s Richard R. Rea Gymnasium was about redemption. The No. 6-ranked Panthers made the most of it.
Western rebounded from a nine-minute scoreless stretch in the first half with a smothering defensive effort, hounding the No. 8 Bison at every turn in the second half of a 43-33 victory in the seniors’ final game on their home floor.
Carley O’Neal led the Panthers (19-3) with 13 points and eight steals. She scored 11 points in the second half to help erase the memory of a first half that saw Western build an early 10-2 lead before foul trouble took it out of synch on both ends of the floor, aiding BC’s 15-0 run to help the Bison take a 17-14 lead into halftime.
“Honestly, I wasn’t worried. I knew we’d work through it,” Carley O’Neal said. “We overcame it, and I took it upon myself because I knew we were a better team than that. We’ve worked so hard for everything we’ve earned this year. I wasn’t about to let our team come to the end of the road [Saturday] night.”
Western starters Caitlyn O’Neal and Jessica Givens were both saddled with their second fouls in the first 5:30 of the first quarter and exited. Their absence took a bite out of Western’s full-court pressure, and as a result, it’s offensive firepower with so much of its scoring predicated on steals and transition buckets. The Panthers missed their next nine attempts from the field.
BC (16-4) took advantage, clawing within 10-6 by the end of the first stop. Evonnie Payne’s driving bucket with 35 seconds left in the half finished off BC’s 15-0 surge, but a floater by Caitlyn O’Neal and a steal that turned into a pair of free throws from Kiersten Durbin in the closing seconds helped Western pull within three at intermission.
The Panthers then dominated the final 16 minutes to seal the win.
Western forced 28 turnovers — 18 in the second in the second half, 10 coming on steals in the final 16 minutes with Givens and Cailtyn O’Neal back in the lineup. That helped the Panthers outscore BC 19-4 in points off turnovers for the night.
“Certainly when those two go [to the bench], we’re looking at a different style of play,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “With the style we play, you’re going to experience foul trouble occasionally. We were able to get through the first half inside of five points, and felt good about that. We knew that would play into our favor as we brought our press back. These girls run that diamond pressure about as well as a team I’ve had.”
Western held BC to three field goal attempts in through the first 4:40 of the final stanza, all three of which they hit. Tessa Brouillette’s 3 pulled the Bison within 36-33 with 3:20 to play, but the Panthers would not relinquish another point as BC missed its final five attempts from the floor.
“Their seniors never say die because this is all they have left,” BC coach David Baxter said. “Our girls gave great effort, but when you have 14-, 15-year-olds going against 18-year-olds, our girls just broke down over the course of the game physically.”
Katie Shields led BC with 16 points and nine rebounds.