By Clyde Hughes
For the Kokomo Tribune
Oxford — Western’s girls basketball team, ranked No. 8 in Class 3A, made sure it punched its ticket for Friday’s sectional semifinals with a 12-2 third quarter run that sealed a 54-31 victory over Howard County rival Northwestern in the last night Benton Central sectional opener for both teams.
Western (18-4), the defending sectional champions, now takes on Twin Lakes (12-10) in the second game of sectional semis Friday night. Twin Lakes edged Maconaquah 47-46 in the first game last night. No. 3-ranked Benton Central (18-3) will face West Lafayette (17-5) in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday.
After handily beating Northwestern the first two times they played them, Western’s coach Chris Keisling said knew the Tigers would come out and play with something to prove. The Panthers defense, though, proved too much for the Tigers.
Western jumped ahead early with an aggressive defense that created 15 Northwestern turnovers in the first half, allowing the Panthers to race out to a 29-18 lead by intermission, and setting up the clinching effort in the third quarter.
“They know us well, know what they’ve got to and where all of our weaknesses are,” Keisling said. “It’s like playing your brother in a backyard game. Fortunately we were able to win against an up-and-coming team. Coach Kathie Layden is doing a great job there and they’ve progressed all year long, but we just had too much for them.”
After a slow moving first quarter that saw both teams stuck on a 2-2 score for the opening five minutes, Carley O’Neal broke the ice with a 3-pointer with 2:46 left. Jessica Givens followed with another trey and O’Neal piled one more on to push Western’s lead to 11-6.
In the second quarter, a Kiersten Durbin 3-pointer gave the Panthers their first double-digit lead (18-8) with 6:42 left. Western would lead by as many as 13 points at two different points in the quarter.
A Marie Hunkeler jumper with 2:35 left got Northwestern back to nine, 27-16, but that would be the closest the Tigers could get before halftime.
Despite losing by 27 and 18 points the first two times Northwestern played Western this season, Layden said she felt confident about the game. In the end, Western hit enough big shots to turn the tide.
“We had a winning season,” Layden said. “I didn’t feel like we came into this game thinking we were going to get beat. Obviously we came in with a game plan and we tried to execute it. They knocked down some shots and that’s going to win you the ball game.”
The Panthers held Northwestern to 1 of 8 shooting in the third quarter. By the time Kaitlynd Lear hit a 12-foot jumper with 30 seconds left in the period, Western had built a 41-20 advantage. The Tigers finished the game with 27 turnovers in all.
“Once we got the lead we tried to limit their possessions,” Keisling said. “We knew that Northwestern would be hungry to come in and play a good game. In the third quarter focused on one particular defense.
“We thought the pressure really made the difference. We changed a lot the first half but third quarter we went more with our three-quarter court backed with our 23 and just stayed with that. Then we patched up any little errors we made in the first half. We have a lot of three and four-year starters so that makes a difference.”
Carley O’Neal led the Panthers with 12 point while senior Allison Lindley added 10 more.
“This is the third time we’ve played them so we knew how they were going to play us,” Lindley said. “We just wanted to keep the pressure up and not let them back in the game.”