WARSAW — March 1 was like December 25 for the Western girls basketball team.
A 41-31 victory over Norwell in the Class 3A northern semistate was everything for which a Panther girl could have asked.
“I feel ecstatic,” Western senior Kiersten Durbin said. “I don’t even have the words to tell you how excited I am for this. It’s been our dream to go to state and now we’re doing it.”
The Panthers made their dream come true with a gritty effort on the Warsaw High School floor that saw Western outscore the Knights 16-8 in the final quarter.
When it ended, they jumped and ran around like little kids. Then Caitlyn O’Neal dropped to the floor and kissed the court.
“Yes I did. I couldn’t help it. I was just so happy,” she said.
Soaking it all in was Panther coach Chris Keisling, who led the Panthers to the semistate in 2012, and on Saturday enjoyed watching his team break through to reach next Saturday’s Class 3A championship game in Terre Haute against Evansville Mater Dei.
“I almost feel like a parent on Christmas morning, when the kids unwrap gifts, to see the kids light up when they’ve accomplished something like this,” Keisling said.
But Saturday’s win wasn’t a gift. It was earned for 32 minutes of tight, defensive ball. The final margin was 10 points, but the game was air tight throughout. Western led 9-7 after a tense start, led 15-12 at halftime and held a 25-23 lead at the third stop after a five-point flurry by Carley O’Neal.
Both teams put emphasis on defense and offense was hard to come by. Western (22-3) connected on 11 of 40 shots and Norwell (21-5) hit 8 of 37.
The key came in the third quarter, when Western finally solved Norwell’s 2-1-2 halfcourt zone.
“We finally did that three, four minutes into the third quarter and then things turned,” Keisling said. “I knew our defense would stay strong and it was just a matter of getting that solved.