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.