By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Experience is the best teacher. And in prep sports, there’s no substitute for it when the crunchtime of postseason play hits.
For Western’s girls basketball team, a group of sophomores played a vital role in the Panthers’ run to the Class 3A North Semistate. Those sophomores are battle-tested seniors now, leading the No. 6-ranked Panthers into the regional round for the second time in three seasons.
“There has definitely been a different feel going into this game than there was last time around,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “Of course, the last time around, it was the first time Western won a sectional in 23 years, and there was a lot of euphoria. There is now, but these girls have experienced postseason play, and there’s more of a feel that they’re here to do a job. We have more of a we-know-what’s-ahead-of-us type of approach this time.”
The situation won’t be the only familiar aspect to Western’s Saturday schedule. After Griffith (12-10) and Kankakee Valley (15-6) square off in the first game at Rochester High School at 10:30 a.m., Western (19-3) will face an opponent from recent memory, South Bend Saint Joseph (16-4), in the second semifinal at 12:30.
The Panthers defeated the Indians 36-34 to win the Rensselaer Regional in 2012.
“The big difference is both teams come in with a full week of preparation against each other,” Keisling said. “It’s not like last time, where you’ve had a game in the morning and are running on adrenaline. You’ll see some things that way that are different. But, in terms of style of play, it will be similar to that game.”
St. Joseph is led by the junior backcourt tandem of Michelle Weaver and Madeline Raster. Weaver leads the Indians 16.6 points per game and Raster adds 13.3. The duo combined for 34 points in the team’s 59-48 win over Rochester in the sectional final.
“When we watch them on film, in many ways, I feel like I’m looking at us,” Keisling said. “They are a perimeter-oriented team. They have kids who can shoot it. They’re aggressive, strong kids like we are. So, it’s going to be a good game, there’s no doubt about it.”
In the 2012 regional final, current IUPUI standout Nicole Rogers scored 23 of Western’s 36 points. This time around, the Panthers offer a much more diversified offensive attack, with five players who score seven or more points a game. Senior guard Carley O’Neal leads the way at 14.3 ppg, twin sister and fellow Davis and Elkins College recruit Caitlyn O’Neal follows with 11.1, senior post Raven Black adds 9.8, senior guard Kiersten Durbin follows at 7.6, and senior Jessica Givens adds another formidable option at 7.0.
“We were very Nicole Rogers-based team as far as where we looked to get points, and now we have a lot of kids who contribute to our balanced scoring totals,” Keisling noted. “At any given time, a kid is going to step up and try to score the ball, and that wasn’t necessarily the case two years ago.”
The Panthers have hung their hats on defense, though. Their full-court pressure has forced teams into an average of 24.6 turnovers per game this season, 17.2 of those coming on steals. The 35.3 ppg Western gives up is the third best scoring defense in 3A, behind only Griffith (33.8) and No. 3 Garrett (34.3).
“I like our athleticism and ability to cover shooters, and I think that plays into our favor versus some of the other teams [St. Joseph has] played against,” Keisling said. “I think we have a lot of things that neutralize what they rely on. And, we have kids with tournament experience. So, as long as we stay away from sickness and foul trouble, I think we stand a really nice chance.”
Class 3A Rochester Regional Saturday 10:30 a.m.: Griffith (12-10) vs. Kankakee Valley (15-6) 12:30 p.m.: No. 6 Western (19-3) vs. South Bend St. Joseph (16-4) 8 p.m.: Championship