By BRYAN GASKINS
The Western-Eastern clash in the opening semifinal of the girls basketball Howard County Tournament on Thursday at Northwestern had the makings of an interesting matchup. The teams came in with a combined record of 21-3 and with plenty of offensive firepower.
It turned out to be an interesting game all right — just in an odd sort of way.
Both teams endured long offensive slumps before Western emerged with a 28-21 victory. The Panthers made just 12 of 44 shots from the field while the Class 2A No. 6-ranked Comets connected on just 8 of 36 attempts.
“It was an ugly game, but I told the girls it was a huge accomplishment in the sense they now have beaten a really nice program five straight times. That is very hard to do,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “I told them they can hang their hat on that as they’re licking their wounds about how bad that we probably played in terms of our floor game.”
Northwestern blasted Taylor 66-34 in the second semifinal.
The tournament wraps up Saturday at Northwestern with the consolation game at noon and the title game to follow.
The following are looks at Thursday’s semifinal games.
Western 28, Eastern 21
The Panthers endured the first cold stretch in the game, hitting just 1 of 15 shots in the opening quarter. The Comets took advantage to build a 9-2 lead, then went up 13-4 early in the second quarter.
At that point, the Panthers came alive and the Comets went cold. The Panthers outscored the Comets 13-0 over the final 6:00 of the half for a 17-13 halftime lead. Allison Lindley, the Panthers’ lone senior, sparked the surge with a pair of jumpers.
The Panthers shook off their miserable first quarter to make 6 of 12 shots from the field in the second quarter.
“We had some foul trouble so we decided to spread the floor with our spread offense, to give our guard-oriented team a chance to really work,” Keisling noted. “When [the Comets] were in man defense, we were able to get a little spark out of that with drives to the basket. We also got some things off our defense. That all contributed to that run.”
Western kept the momentum after halftime, scoring the first six points of the third quarter for a 23-13 lead. But then the Panthers went cold and the Comets stormed back to life. The Comets had an 8-0 run over the final 4:11 of the quarter to close to within 23-21.
The game was there for the taking by either team in the fourth quarter — and neither team pounced. The score remained 23-21 for the opening three minutes of the quarter as both teams repeatedly came up empty on possessions. Lindley finally ended the drought with a driving bucket at 4:56, putting the Panthers up 25-21.
Eastern’s comeback hopes took big hits when leading scorers Brittany Neeley and Bethany Neeley fouled out at 4:08 and 3:20, respectively. Still, the Comets trailed by just four — but they couldn’t buy a bucket in the final quarter.
Western’s Carley O’Neal split a pair of free throws after a steal for a 26-21 lead at 2:52. After Eastern missed the front end of a one-and-bonus chance, Western’s Jessica Givens iced the win with a jumper at 1:02.
Western ended up outscoring Eastern 5-0 in the final quarter with the Comets missing nine shots from the field.
“Both teams know each other well so I thought defensively it was going to be kind of drag out like that. But I didn’t see 28-21 happening,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “Their zone is really active and they’re big. We just struggled at times to get shots in the second quarter. We changed up some things at halftime and I feel like in the second half, we got a lot of what we wanted, then we just couldn’t hit anything. We couldn’t hit anything from [3-point range, 2 of 13], we went 3 of 10 from the line which is uncharacteristic of us.
“Just an uncharacteristic game all together offensively for us.”
Lindley and Caitlyn O’Neal finished with eight points apiece to lead the Panthers. Givens had a game-high 13 rebounds.
Bethany Neeley paced the Comets with a game-high 10 points. Taylor Holliday had 10 rebounds.
Western improved to 11-2 while Eastern dropped to 11-2. Both of the Comets’ losses have come to the Panthers, with the other coming in Mid-Indiana Conference play.
Northwestern 66, Taylor 34
The Purple Tigers jumped to a 13-0 lead on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and maintained complete control the rest of the way. They went on to lead 20-5 at the end of the first quarter, 39-17 at halftime and 56-24 after three quarters.
“I think coming out the way we did was a huge key for us. I thought we looked really sharp offensively,” Northwestern coach Kathie Layden said.
Northwestern shot a crisp 60 percent from the field (27 of 45).
The Tigers (7-6) repeatedly fed the post for high-percentage shots. Posts Hannah Treadway and Brooke Treadway combined for 27 points and 13-of-19 shooting from the field.
“I felt like we had an advantage in the post and we wanted to look inside,” Layden said. “I thought our guards did a great job of handling the ball and looking for the open person.”
Ten different players scored for the Tigers. Erin Kesler had nine points, Kaitlynd Lear had eight and Addison Dubbels chipped in seven.
Brie Boehler led the Titans with 12 points. Boehler was one of four freshmen to start for Taylor, which dropped to 4-10.
Western beat Northwestern 53-26 in MIC play on Nov. 26. That loss dropped the Tigers to 0-4, but they are 7-2 since, and will carry a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s title game.
“I think we’re seeing improvement every practice. We’re seeing good things from the girls. A lot of it is [adjusting to] a new coach, a new system. It was a gradual thing where you see the confidence [grow] in the girls from knowing what we expect and what we want,” Layden said.
“Obviously, Western is a tough team and we know we’ll have our hands full Saturday, but we’re going to come out and give it our best shot.”