By Josh Sigler
GREENTOWN — The members of Eastern’s girls basketball team are used to accomplishing feats few believed they’d accomplish.
Every hurdle in their path cleared to this point, the Class 2A No. 6-ranked Comets will face their toughest test to date today when they take to the Hulman Center court in Terre Haute to battle No. 1-ranked and defending 2A champion Evansville Mater Dei in the state finals. Tipoff is slated for approximately 12:45 p.m.
“They’ve built a determination, a winning mentality,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said of his team. “It’s just something where we believe when we step on the court we can compete and should win. There are a lot of great teams, and Mater Dei is a great team, led by a couple of great players, but our kids are not afraid. We have kids that, through their faith and work ethic and diligence, have put themselves on stages like this before. It’s not a surprise to me that they’ve put themselves here.”
Mater Dei enters today with a 27-2 record and winners of 11 straight games. Their last loss came in a 60-52 setback to Class 4A school Castle on Jan. 12. The Wildcats haven’t given up more than 49 points since then.
Leading the Mater Dei charge is 5-foot-11 junior guard Maura Muensterman, an Indiana University recruit. She’s shown great ability to both score and distribute the basketball this season, averaging 23.2 points and 9.0 assists per game while connecting on 59.5 percent of her shots from the field. That clip includes a 48.2-percent performance from 3-point range.
“It’s a tall order defensively from a man-to-man perspective,” Dexter said of guarding Muensterman. “You just have to limit her touches, but you can’t think you’re going to limit her touches completely. We really have to work against her and use our speed to our advantage and be there on the catch every time, give a lot of help to her when she has the ball. She can distribute, so we can’t have our post players helping up. Our post players need to stay home and our guards need to work together. Our backcourt as a group has to slow her down and contain.”
Muensterman’s partner in crime this season has been 6-2 sophomore post Tori Shickel, who’s averaging a double-double — 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds — and shoots an outstanding 70.4 percent from the field.
“They have a great inside-outside game,” Dexter said. “They have a great 6-2 post player who has the ability to finish right-handed and left-handed. They have a 5-11 guard who is outstanding with both hands and can create things for herself. They like to put those players in pick-and-roll situations and make you defend that. Offensively, they like to space the floor and utilize the things they’re good at. They have some good role players, too, who have found their niche. They seem to play to their roles well and play to their strengths. I think it’s going to be two teams who are going to be playing to their strengths. Both have a great will to win. I think it’s going to be a great contest, and something to see.”
Eastern 6-foot sophomore post Taylor Holliday has shown solid ability to defend and contain otherwise dominant post players during the Comets’ postseason run. She held Tashayla Sutorius, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers’ leading scorer, to eight points after the first possession of last Saturday’s semistate win. Holliday is looking for a similar performance this afternoon.
“I see it as a big challenge because this Schickel girl that I’m going to be guarding is a big threat,” Holliday said. “I’m confident in my abilities as a post player from the Luers game, and I’m ready to go. I think it’s going to be a big importance to focus on my defense and let Brittany and Bethany [Neeley] score.”
The Neeleys are the transmission for Eastern’s engine. Fresh off of a 48-point, 20-rebound semistate performance, Brittany leads the Comets with 19.2 points and 5.0 assists per game and also takes 8.9 rebounds per game. Bethany adds a double-double, 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, and dishes 4.1 assists per outing.
Holliday enters the state finals averaging 8.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg — 10.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg in the postseason.
Junior Ally Oyler adds 8.2 ppg to the mix, and has hit 52 3-pointers for the Comets.
Eastern (22-3) enters the state finals just as hot as Mater Dei. Winners of nine straight, the Comets last setback also came on Jan. 12, a 62-43 defeat at the hands of 3A state finalist Hamilton Heights.
Like Mater Dei, that was the last game Eastern gave up more than 49 points. Both teams have given up 32 or fewer points eight times this season. Both have also only given up 60 or more points twice.
“They are just so diligent every possession about turning negatives into positives,” Dexter said of his team. “We talk about that. You’re going to make mistakes, but are you going to sit there and get down about that? Are you going to let snowball into another mistake? Or, are you going to go and attack again? We’ve shown that these kids are relentless. They keep attacking. It’s very hard over 32 minutes to stand up to that.”
The week leading up to a game with the magnitude of the state finals has been hectic, but Dexter has urged his team to soak in and relish the experience, an opportunity that few get to experience. An opportunity the coaches and players may never get to experience again.
“You see numerous examples of how this only happens once or maybe never,” Dexter said. “I understand that, and I understand that it’s the kids’ opportunity to shine. It’s the kids who have gotten us here, their hard work and diligence through 80 practices now. Four months and one week is where we’re at in the season, and you just have to look back over all those team gatherings and the amount of times we’ve been together throughout the year. It’s definitely important to reflect on that, and we’ll have more time to reflect on that when it’s over.
“No matter what, you can be proud of the effort that’s gotten us here.”
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