By Pedro Velazco
It’s a big number. When Eastern senior guard Brittany Neeley dropped that on Fort Wayne Bishop Luers in the Class 2A northern semistate on Feb. 23 — along with 20 rebounds — it didn’t so much define her season as put an exclamation mark on it.
Neeley’s level of play was too high all winter to be defined by just one game, no matter how high the stakes, or outlandish her performance.
Instead, that effort was the best in many big moments for Neeley this season.
Along the way, Neeley crossed the 1,000-point mark in December, became Eastern’s all-time leading scorer in January, and helped the Comets win sectional, regional and semistate titles in February en route to a Class 2A runner-up finish in March. Her milestone season separated the wearer of the Eastern No. 33 jersey from the other local luminaries and earned her the MVP of the 33rd Kokomo Tribune All-Area Girls Basketball Team.
Neeley averaged an area-best 19.1 points and added 8.8 rebounds per game for the Comets, who finished the season 22-4. She registered 136 steals and led the team with 130 assists.
“She just has a toughness about her,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “She’s going to get the ball ... on our defensive end, she’s going to push it at the opponent and she’s going to put an extreme amount of pressure on the opponent defensively.
“She’s always going to make us the aggressor offensively, and when you’re the aggressor offensively, especially in transition, good things are going to happen. By improving her shot she’s become very difficult to stay in front of, because you have to get out on her shooting.
Neeley and twin sister Bethany have made their names as runners, reaching state in cross country and track. Basketball isn’t just a footnote in her career though, it’s a major chapter. She runs on the court too, excelling on the scoring end of Eastern’s transition game.
“I just think she entered [high school] as an athlete and a lot of people wouldn’t question that, but I think people questioned whether she could be a basketball player,” Dexter said. “She’s put in a lot of time over the last four years to improve her shot, to take the point guard responsibility, to be a shutdown defender, to be one of our leading rebounders, to lead the area in assists.
“She worked really hard to go from being an athlete to being a basketball player and I think that really culminated this postseason during our run.”
Neeley and sister Bethany are headed to IU to run for the Hoosiers. On the court, they’re more than a 1-2 punch, they’re interdependent. The success of one hinges on the other, and they link together effortlessly.
“With twins, there is obviously some sort of connection, but with them, there’s no doubt they always play better together on the floor,” Dexter said. “Bethany can get the ball out of bounds and not even look where Brittany is and get it to her. If someone is trying to set up a press, they’re not going to be affected. They don’t have to yell to one another or look for the basketball.”
Neeley is a three-time selection to the All-Area Team, as is Bethany.
Kokomo’s Anastacia Kirby, Tipton’s Kacie Juday, Western’s Carley O’Neal and Jessica Givens, and Peru’s Josie Murphy are all two-time picks to the squad.
Kacie Juday, Tipton
The junior guard led Tipton in almost all major categories including scoring (17.4 ppg), assists (86) and steals (97). What’s more, she snagged a team-high 10.4 rpg.
“Kacie’s just a phenomenal athlete,” Tipton coach Nick Comer said. “She’s probably as athletic as any kid in our area, probably as athletic as any kid in the state. Because of that athleticism she brings so many things to the table. She’s so strong and so gifted physically, and like Lela [Crawford], she hates to lose.
“We asked her to do a bunch of different things. Offensively, early in the year we asked her to be off the ball and a scoring threat, later in the year we asked her to be the point guard again. Defensively, she’s so physically gifted she can guard anybody on the floor 1 through 5.”
Anastacia Kirby, Kokomo
The senior post battler was Kokomo’s rock whether she put up big numbers in a game or not. She led the Wildkats in scoring at 9.3 ppg, rebounding at 7.8 rpg, field goal percentage at 48.4, and also led the Kats in dirty work. It made for an effective combination.
“She is a great natural talent that also is very rare when your top player doesn’t mind doing the dirty work, the blockouts, the great defense in the post,” Kokomo coach Jason Snyder said.
Kirby’s game grew to allow her to be an effective offensive player even as she drew heavy attention.
“The other team always focused on her defensively,” Snyder said. “She has continued to improve her game to where she’s not just a back-to-the-basket post type, but she is able to step out and hit 3s for us. She opened up everything in our offense. She was our center, she defended the best post player for the other team, she really led us in getting big rebounds when we needed them.”
Bethany Neeley, Eastern
The senior guard averaged 15.2 points, posted an area-best 11.4 rebounds per game despite measuring 5-foot-6, and led the team with 144 steals. What’s more, she is often the engine of the potent Comet transition game.
“You ask what makes Brittany so good in transition, she gets out and goes, but she gets out and goes because Bethany gets her the basketball right out of the net or on rebounds. Like in baseball, you have a five-tool player, [Bethany] is just capable of doing anything on the basketball floor — anything. Being left left-handed, she’s difficult to guard. Opposing coaches have used the term ‘slithery,’ because she’d find her way to the basket and will us over the top.”
Bethany Neeley reached the 1,000-point milestone this season, despite being asked to do so many things other than score.
“There’s been years where she had to lead us in rebounding,” Dexter said. “She had to be a distributor of the basketball. She had to be a 5-6, 115-pound dripping wet post player defensively and guard six-footers and get in there and bang around with them. She can play 1-through-5 offensively, and she can defend 1-through-5. There’s not many players in girls basketball that can do that.”
Carley O’Neal, Western
The junior guard led the a very balanced Panther squad in scoring at 11.3 ppg, as well as 3-pointers (34), steals (73) and assists (67). She was one of the steadying forces in the backcourt on a squad that forced 179 more turnovers than it committed.
“She brings a lot of ballhandling, she brings a lot of tenacity to the floor — she’s a real tenacious defender,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “And she has the ability to shoot the ball.
“This season over last season she took on more of a scoring role. Last year she had her games where she’d get 20, but this year she was more consistently scoring at an even pace. She was just one of the pieces to the puzzle this year that helped fill in the gap when it came to Nicole [Rogers] graduating.”
Lela Crawford, Tipton
A junior guard without a strictly defined role, Crawford was used in a variety of ways offensively and defensively. She responded by averaging 12.9 ppg and 9 rpg in addition to snagging 50 steals.
“Lela’s probably one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever coached,” Comer said. “She’s probably undersized, she’s not as strong as a lot of kids out there, but she has an incredible will to win and that’s such an important part of who we’ve become as a team because of her drive to succeed, which obviously starts at home.”
Crawford is the younger sister of senior Mike Crawford, Tipton’s all-time leading scorer on the boys side.
“Offensively, she’s such a gifted athlete, we were able to, depending on the matchups, use her in the open court, stretch the defense a lot,” Comer said. “She really improved her perimeter game this year. She’s a good ball handler so she was able to play a bunch of different spots. Defensively, she really understands game plans and game management.”
Josie Murphy, Peru
The second-year point guard made big strides as a sophomore, getting more efficient on offense. She led the Bengals in scoring at 14.6 ppg and dished a team-best 47 assists.
“She’s improved mentally and seeing the court better, getting the ball where it needs to go,” Peru coach David Weeks said. “Her shot selection has gotten a lot better as well. She’s not forcing certain shots, she’s pulling up and hitting 10-to-12-foot jump shots. She’s a team leader for us on the floor.
“A lot of times as teams scouted us, they’d try to double her up or definitely put their best defender on her. I guess you’d say she grew up quickly understanding you’re going to get the other teams’ best, game in and game out. As the season progressed, she understood that was going to happen and let the game come to her instead of force things.”
Caitlyn O’Neal, Western
She moved into a starting role as a junior and responded with 9.5 points per game and 63 steals as a combo guard in a three-guard backcourt. Like her twin sister, she brings a blend of items to the table.
“She’s a real good ballhandler and can play the point or two guard for us, good defender,” Keisling said. “She’s got a great motor. She just goes and goes and goes and can consistently go hard for a long period of time.
“In addition to that, she led us at the free throw line shooting [71.9] percent, and would have her moments too where she was explosive and scored the ball.”
Kaitlin Ragan, Carroll
A do-everything senior guard, Ragan led the Cougars in scoring at 12.5 ppg and steals 3.3 per game and was the person Carroll leaned on when the team needed an injection of grit. That meant playing down low in Carroll’s 2-3 zone defense, and making up for others when teammates were injured.
“She was just a hard-nosed winner,” said Carroll coach Mike McCroskey, who stepped down recently after six straight winning seasons with the Flora crew. “In her four years, compounded by this year, she probably hit more big shots in big games than any kid I coached except Quinci Eller.
“Even though she’s only 5-3, 5-4, she did a little of everything for us. She was an outstanding defensive player, a good rebounder. She ended up shooting  percent from 2-point range, which for a small kid is rare, but it’s because she attacked the basket so hard.”
Hannah Treadway, Northwestern
Northwestern’s senior post capped her career by leading the team in scoring at 10.4 ppg and leading in rebounding at 6.2 rpg. She displayed a wider variety of offensive options and got more sturdy defensively.
“Hannah is predominantly an inside force, but I think what she was able to offer this season as well was an outside shot,” NW coach Kathie Layden said. “She worked hard at developing other aspects of her game just to make her more versatile for us.
“She led us in scoring and rebounds but I would say she worked equally hard on being a great defensive player. Hannah always gives 100 percent every time she steps on the court. Hannah was a tremendous leader for us this season on and off the court.”
Jessica Givens, Western
A all-arounder on a guard-heavy team, Givens averaged 9.3 points and 5.4 rebounds while offering an outside threat with 31 triples.
“She brought to us 3-point shooting,” Keisling said. “She did a heck of a job rebounding, in conference play she had multiple games where she was 10 or 11 rebounds per game.
“She just had some really big games. In our victories over Lebanon and BC, she had a huge night defensively and rebounding-wise, and had some big-time buckets at the end of the Lebanon game. She was a kid that can give you scoring and shooting outside, and always consistently gave us great defense.”
Taylor Holiday, Eastern
A true post, the sophomore center was a key figure in the paint as the Comets made a run to the Class 2A state championship game. She averaged 7.8 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Dexter said that Holiday arrived as a freshman with an offensive skill set, but her continual improvement defensively helped the Comets each possession this season. Also, her improved fitness allowed her to play more minutes at the pace that the team’s go-go guards dictated.
“She’s the inside presence,” Dexter said. “[Power forward] Mercedes [Rubow] can step in and can help with that, but she’s such a tough kid, she’s got a little bit of fire to her and really any time she came off the floor, there was definitely a little bit of a hole there defensively.
“Taylor on the inside from a defensive perspective was huge for us, and it allowed our guards to help one another with penetration, allowed them to gap together because we could count on Taylor to go one-on-one in the post.”
Alanis Jones, Kokomo
The forward turned herself into a reliable scoring threat and a safety valve for teammates as a junior through increased skill and strength.
“Her strength allowed her to finish much better around the basket,” Snyder said. “In the sectional, when they were taking a couple other options away, she was our leading scorer through the sectional.”
Jones averaged 8 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“She was our most improved player this season,” Snyder said. “She is a post player that is able to play out on the perimeter. When you have a taller player that’s able to step in and be an outlet for the guards, and is also able to bring the ball up and handle it, that was a great attribute that we really needed.”
Allison Lindley, Western
When situations were difficult, it was Lindley who would calm the Panthers, or steer them. The only senior on a 19-win team, she averaged 7.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and had 61 steals.
“As I consistently said over the course of the year, she consistently played point guard for us, and was also an extremely strong rebounding guard this year,” Keisling said. “Boys or girls, she’s probably the best rebounding guard I’ve coached.
“You can count on her to make the big play, wasn’t afraid to take the ball to the bucket, what I call a ‘money player.’
“She’s not afraid to take that leadership role in a tough situation. When the game gets tight, you need something to add, she’s going to make it happen.”
Jasmine Love, Kokomo
A natural small forward, Love moved to point guard as a junior to solidify the Kats’ backcourt. She averaged 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds, ans also led Kokomo with 45 assists and 28 3-pointers.
“She has played small forward most of her career but because she’s played so much basketball she really did a nice job of taking [the point guard spot], allowing us to get into our offense,” Snyder said. “She did an outstanding job of running her team and being a great leader for us on the floor, and then she was also our biggest 3-point threat.
“It wasn’t something that’s her natural position, or something she was really comfortable with going from her sophomore year to her junior year, but she made great strides in terms of her leadership and being comfortable running her team. It allowed us to have a successful season because she was willing to make that adjustment.”