By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — TERRE HAUTE — Western’s girls basketball team entered Saturday’s Class 3A state finals matchup with Evansville Mater Dei as a heavy underdog.
And, judging from what was on paper, Panthers coach Chris Keisling couldn’t blame pundits for feeling that way. The Wildcats entered Saturday owning an average win margin of 28 points per game, leaving a path of destruction in their wake as they navigated the tournament with ease.
”The little secret was that I knew these kids could do it,” Keisling said.
All Western had to do was execute its gameplan. Keisling saw his team do just about as well as anyone could’ve ever imagined, creating a perfect storm — and perfect recipe — for victory over the Wildcats, 38-35, at Indiana State’s Hulman Center to grab the program’s first state championship and deny Mater Dei a rare three-peat.
Western neutralized Mater Dei’s size advantage, managed to avoid major foul trouble, controlled the pace with a pesky 2-3 zone defense and methodical offense, and like Keisling indicated earlier in the week his team would have to do, knocked down shots in key situations.
“They just never say die,” Keisling said. “They’re winners, and they’re believers in what they can do. It’s one of those things where they saw the mountain in front of them and said ‘Hey, let’s go climb it.’ What an outstanding thing to be part of. I coach the team, but it’s these girls who did a flat-out great job of executing everything we asked them to do.”
The first part of Keisling’s victory recipe occurred early in the game. Senior Jessica Givens buried three 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Panthers hit at a 7-for-12 clip from the field in the opening eight minutes to jump out to a 17-12 advantage at the first stop.
“We came out and wanted to get a big lead early, so to get those was amazing,” Givens said. “I think they helped out a lot even though they were early in the game. It’s pretty bright in [Hulman Center], but once I got the feel for it, I was able to go out and do what I did.”
Western (23-3) attempted to force the game into a more comfortable pace in the second quarter, but cooled off from the floor, hitting on just 1 of 6 field goal attempts over the next eight minutes. Western’s 2-3 zone on the other end helped dictate the pace despite the lack of offensive production, but Mater Dei was able to pull even at 21-21 by halftime.
The Panthers defense put forth a performance for the ages in the second half. Their zone collapsed the middle while seemingly forcing every perimeter shot the Wildcats let go to be taken under duress.
Mater Dei struggled mightily as a result, hitting on just 3 of 24 shots from the field in the second half. The Wildcats’ Maura Muensterman, a Miss Basketball candidate and Indiana Universtity recruit, entered Saturday averaging 22 ppg on the season while hitting at a 55-percent clip from the field. She struggled to the tune of a 3-for-13 performance in the game and finished with a team-high 12 points.
“With the lack of 2-3 that they’d seen, I thought we had a chance to be effective in it as a result,” Keisling said. “I told the girls ‘In my opinion, you run the best 2-3 zone in the state, hands down.’ And I thought it’d be hard for them to make adjustments because they hadn’t seen it.”
Even so, Mater Dei (26-2) wouldn’t go away. With Western grinding the game to a snail’s pace in the third quarter, the Wildcats went to a run-and-jump, half-court trap that left Panther ball-handlers scurrying between the timeline and the top of the key to avoid the pressure and milk time.
The Panthers committed six turnovers in the third, but treys from Caitlyn O’Neal at the 4:18 mark and Carley O’Neal with 1:08 left in the third, with Mater Dei struggling from the field, were enough to give Western a 27-25 lead heading into the fourth.
”I didn’t think twice about it,” Carley O’Neal said of the defensive pressure. “I just saw them coming at me, and knew I had to avoid it and get the ball to someone who was open.
Caitlyn interjected saying: “After a few turnovers we realized we couldn’t attack horizontally. We need to move and pass the ball moving forward.”
Mater Dei post Tori Schickel spent most of the game in foul trouble, forcing Muensterman, a point guard by nature, to move to the post for key stretches of the second half, taking the Wildcats out their game plan offensively.
A pair of Muensterman free throws knotted the score at 27 with 6:17 to play, but with the help of an inspired performance over the next five minutes from reserve Siera Daniel, the Panthers were able to stretch out a 36-30 lead by the 1:10 mark.
Daniel scored a putback off of a Raven Black miss, blocked a Schickel shot in the post which led to a transition layup from Carley O’Neal, and then blocked another shot attempt from Schickel in a stretch that seemed to energize the Panthers and feed their beliefs of being able to close out a victory.
“Partially it was auto-pilot,” Daniel said. “But, through the week I came to know that I had to get to [Schickel]. She’s one of the best post players I’ve ever seen. We had to stop her. I knew to keep my hands straight up and I ended up blocking them. Raven had a great drive, and without that drive, putback wouldn’t have been there. It happened so fast. I’ll never forget that moment – ever – in my life.”
Muensterman buried a triple from the right wing to pull Mater Dei with 36-33 with :49 to play, and hit a free throw 26 seconds later after Western missed the front end of a one-and-bonus. It was as close as the Wildcats would get
Daniel stepped up huge again, burying a pair of free throws at the :21.2 mark to put Western up 38-34.
Muensterman missed a 3, and a tie up on the rebound gave possession to Western. Muensterman stole the inbound pass, but several seconds milked off the clock before Schickel was fouled with 2.3 seconds to play. She hit 1 of 2 to make the final tally.
Carley O’Neal led Western with 12 points and six rebounds. Givens added nine points, Black added six points and seven boards, and Daniel finished with four points, five boards, and five blocked shots.
Schickel added 11 points and 15 boards for the Wildcats.
“This was really neat to see,” Keisling said. “As a coach, when you see kids execute the way we did [Saturday] night, it certainly gives you a warm feeling about how things worked out. Your kids have to execute it, you can only go and lay it out. I thought the kids were really up to the task and focused. I thought that, combined with their abilities, helped us get this done.”
FINAL Ev. Mater Dei 35 Western 38 Western finishes season 23-3