By PEDRO VELAZCO
---- — 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.
“Once they got it turned, it was a matter of finishing out the game [with] good offensive execution, strong defense and continue to rebound the heck out of the ball like [Jessica] Givens and [Siera] Daniel and [Raven] Black can do, and we were off to the races.”
The Panthers are senior-heavy, and several of those players played two seasons ago when the Panthers lost their semistate matchup to Fort Wayne Concordia.
“Luckily for us, we experienced this our sophomore year, so we were a little more prepared for this than the other team,” Durbin said.
Durbin was hot early when players on both teams struggled with nerves. She hit two triples and a free throw in the opening quarter for seven of Western’s nine points. She finished with nine points and added five steals.
Carley O’Neal and Givens each had 10 points, and Caitlyn O’Neal had eight points, all on free throws in the final quarter. Givens had nine rebounds and Daniel had eight off the bench including five in the fourth quarter, two coming of Western missed free throws. Black added seven caroms and four points.
Western tied the game with 1:19 left in the third quarter on a hoop-and-harm weaving cut to the hoop from Carley O’Neal, then her deuce on an inbounds play put the Panthers ahead for good 39 seconds before the quarter ended.
In the fourth quarter, Western got a deuce from Carley O’Neal and a rebound hoop from Givens to push the lead to 29-23 forcing a Norwell time out. Norwell hit a free throw a minute later, but Western scored the game’s next seven points on the line for a 36-24 lead with 1:14 to play.
“These kids were ready for this moment,” Keisling said. “They played a real nice Norwell team but I think our senior leadership and veteran play, being able to execute there at the end, sealed the deal and was the difference.”
Caitlyn O’Neal hit 8 of 9 free throws in the final quarter, and her one miss was rebounded by Daniel with 2:16 left in the game. The Panthers were able to keep possession and Caitlyn O’Neal was fouled again 22 seconds later, hitting both free throws for a 34-24 lead.
After Norwell cut the lead to 36-26 with two free throws by Kaylee Roller with 1:05 left, Caitlyn O’Neal hit two more freebies with 35 seconds left to push the margin back up to a dozen. Norwell had a brief flurry of five points on a 3 by Mackenzie Sawyer and two free throws from Kaylee Strunk but that 38-31 score was as close as it got in the final minutes. Western got one more freebie from Black and two more from Caitlyn O’Neal in the final 16 seconds.
“I knew we had it won [in the final minute] and we were on the foul line shooting free throws,” Caitlyn O’Neal said. “When I was on the line shooting free throws, I knew that we’d won and it was hard for me to keep it together because I was so happy. I knew that we’d won and we were going to state.”
Western will be making its first state finals appearance. Evansville Mater Dei won Class 2A state titles in 2012 and ‘13, beating Eastern 62-42 in last year’s title game.