By Josh Sigler
FAIRMOUNT – The Eastern and Tipton girls basketball teams engaged in an early-season slugfest back on Nov. 20, with the Comets emerging victorious in overtime, 50-47, in Tipton.
The two squads will get a chance to meet up again tonight in the Class 2A Madison-Grant Sectional championship game after emerging victorious from Friday’s semifinal matchups.
Eastern held off a late charge from Elwood to down the Panthers 58-53 in the first semifinal, while Tipton defeated Taylor for the second time this season, 50-27, in the nightcap.
The Blue Devils and Comets will meet in the sectional championship round for the second straight year, where Eastern will look to prevent Tipton from attaining its first sectional three-peat.
“Certainly the last two years, [Eastern and Tipton] have been head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, so that’s been the goal,” Tipton coach Nick Comer. “We’ve been fortunate enough the last two years with the draw that the championship game will have a championship feel with the two best teams.”
Eastern 58, Elwood 53
The No. 6-ranked Comets limited the Panthers to a 28-percent performance from the floor in the night’s first semifinal, but were never fully able to put Elwood away as the Panthers connected on nine 3-pointers in 32 attempts from beyond the arc.
“I didn’t expect them to shoot 32 3-pointers,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “They were shooting them from three, four feet deep. We were more worried about [their guards’] dribble drive ability and trying to bridge the gap on that. They were going to live and die by [the 3-pointer], and they banked a couple in late and kept [the game close]. We were never really able to just completely push them away.”
Eastern (18-3) took a six-point lead into intermission at 27-21 and stretched the lead out to 13 late in the third quarter at 43-30.
The Panthers finished the third period on a mini 7-2 run to close to within 45-37 headed into the fourth, but were never able to close to within a single-possession margin, getting as close as four, 57-53, with 13 seconds to play.
The Comets boasted four double-digit scorers and dominated the boards.
Senior Bethany Neeley led the way with 19 points and 10 rebounds and twin sister Brittany added 15 points and 11 boards. Sophomore post Taylor Holliday finished with 12 points and 12 boards as Eastern outrebounded Elwood 44-33. Junior Ally Oyler chipped in 11 points and hit a trio of 3-pointers.
“We’re capable of that every night,” Dexter said of his team’s ability to spread the wealthy offensively. “There’s four kids who have lead us in scoring at various times. ... Between Oyler’s shooting and Holliday’s driving and the Neeleys’ penetrating, we can be difficult to catch back up with.”
Junior Kelsey Hughes led Elwood with 18 points and eight rebounds. Senior Hope Fred added 14 points for the Panthers, who ended the year 17-6.
Eastern will enter tonight seeking its first sectional title since 1999.
“I don’t know if it’d be parallel to anything – I know some of our kids have had some great sports accomplishments,” Dexter said. “But, I know some of them have never really been known as basketball players and have had to really push and become better, taking athleticism and turning it into basketball. I think, for the program in general, to be able to put ourselves in this position for the second year in a row, we hope to lean on that experience.”
Tipton 50, Taylor 27
The Blue Devils (13-9) jumped out to a 21-7 lead after one quarter of play before Taylor closed the gap a bit in the second quarter.
Tipton missed its first nine shots from the field the second stanza, allowing the Titans to close to within 28-19 at the half.
The Titans (7-15) entered a major shooting slump in the third quarter, and were ultimately never able to stop the tailspin, connecting on just 1 of 20 shots from the field in the second half.
“This is the second straight game where our effort defensively in the first half has paid dividends in the second half,” Comer said. “We weren’t as crisp as we wanted to be in the second period, but the wear and tear of constantly changing defenses and putting pressure on them ultimately paid great dividends for us later in the game.”
Taylor, which managed just eight points in the second half, started four freshman, something that’s been the norm this season for coach Dennis Bentzler. He was able to see past the shooting woes and concentrate on the strides his fledgling squad made this season.
“What I was afraid of was their ability to pressure us in the half court after we beat their press,” he said. “We took some bad shots and made some bad decisions, but we just didn’t shoot it well.
“But, I’m so proud of my kids. We’ve done a lot of good things this year, and I have nothing but good feelings about what we can be capable of in the next three years.”
Junior Kacie Juday led Tipton with 17 points and 11 rebounds, while classmate Lela Crawford added 15 points and 13 boards.
Junior Lauran Reece led Taylor with 11 points and seven rebounds, while freshman Brie Boehler added seven points and eight boards.
For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Kokomo Tribune eEdition, or our print edition.