By Josh Sigler
In the last three seasons, the most successful stretch in program history, Western’s girls basketball squad hasn’t lacked for star power.
In 2012, IUPUI recruit Nicole Rogers led the Panthers to their first regional title, and dominated the press clippings with her tournament heroics.
This season, the O’Neal twins, Carley and Caitlyn, Davis and Elkins College commits, led the Panthers on both ends of the floor as the squad won a Mid-Indiana Conference title and subsequent sectional championship.
For Western, though, Saturday’s Class 3A Rochester Regional championship game, a 46-35 victory for the No. 6-ranked Panthers over Kankakee Valley, was about the players who don’t always get the ink.
The role players played like stars, and as a result, Western celebrated its second regional title in three years Saturday night on Zebra Court.
Kiersten Durbin scored a game-high 17 points to lead the Panthers, while fellow seniors Jessica Givens and Siera Daniel led the defensive effort. Givens pulled down 10 rebounds, and Daniel added eight boards and three blocked shots, altering the paths of several others to help Western limit the Kougars to a dismal 12-for-50 night from the field.
“It’s the story of this team,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “Any given kid at any given time can make a big contribution. We know we have great [starting] five up front that, when they step on the floor, can compete with just about anybody. But I knew as the season wore on, the key to us making a deep tournament run was going to be the play of our role players, and that’s what you saw [Saturday] night.”
Valley (16-7) jumped to an early 5-0 lead, but Western quickly turned the tide with a 17-6 run to close the first quarter up 17-11. Durbin and Givens hit 3-pointers in the stretch, while Raven Black added six points in the paint.
At 10-3 run to start the second enabled the Panthers to take control for good. A Givens steal and coast-to-coast layup was followed by a Black jumper from the top of the key to gave Western a 29-14 lead with 2:33 to play in the first half. And although the Kougars closed to within 31-21 at the half, the precedent had been set on both ends of the floor.
Valley struggled to a 6-for-26 mark from the field in the first half, and then went even colder from the floor in the third quarter, connecting on just 1 of 9 shots as Western (21-3) built a 38-23 lead by the third stop.
“They close out on shooters really quick, and that was evident [Saturday] night,” KV coach Ryan Myers said of Western. “We didn’t have a lot of open looks and had to labor for it. When we did get inside on a drive, their bigs did a good job of stepping up and altering shots. They have kids at every position that play very well, and a lot of credit goes to them.”
Durbin canned another trey in the third quarter and snuck a transition bucket into the cylinder just ahead of the buzzer to give Western the 15-point lead headed to the fourth. She hit another pair of jumpers in the fourth, helping Western maintain no less than an 11-point lead in the final 13 minutes.
“Durbin was an assassin [Saturday] night,” Keisling said. “She hit big shot after big shot, and was just huge.”
Durbin took the spotlight in stride, a symptom of a Western squad that saw a plethora of veterans step up in Saturday’s two victories.
“Honestly, I don’t wait on my time to shine,” she said. “I just play, and if I’m on, I’m on. If I’m not, I’m not. I play my role, which is whatever position the team needs at the time. We’ve played together for so long and work together so well. We know where each other is going to be. It’s so much fun. I wouldn’t want to play for any other team.”
Carley O’Neal added 12 points in the win, while Black finished with 10.
Senior Bethany Jansma led Kankakee Valley with 10 points, but hit a pair of 3s in the final two minutes. The Kougars were making their first appearance in a regional final.
Western’s 21 wins are a school record. The Panthers will face Norwell (21-4) in Saturday’s Class 3A North Semistate, which will be played at either Warsaw or Crown Point. The IHSAA will make a final decision on the site today.
“These are great kids who are easy to coach, and they deserve this as much as any group who’s ever come through,” Keisling said. “Their work ethic on and off the floor and attitudes are just outstanding. Their ability to handle adversity — sickness, foul trouble, all the typical things that go into a team’s life is incredible. They rise above everything.”