By Josh Sigler
TERRE HAUTE — Entering Saturday’s Class 2A girls basketball state finals, Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter wasn’t sure how many Indiana residents outside of the Kokomo area could point to Greentown on a map.
The scoreboard may not have ended up in the Comets’ favor, but the squad put its signature grittiness on display in a valiant effort, an attempt to deny No. 1-ranked Evansville Mater Dei a repeat state title.
The Wildcats built a commanding 21-point lead by halftime, and although Eastern got within 14 midway through the third quarter, the physical mismatches were ultimately to great to overcome in a 62-42 loss in front of 4,780 fans at Indiana State University’s Hulman Center.
Saturday’s postgame events were a celebration of a great season more so than a mourning session for the loss, and Dexter was certain of the impression his squad left on spectators.
“There aren’t a lot of people who know where Eastern and Greentown are, and the kids on this team, in many other sports and avenues, have put us on the map,” he said. “People know who we are because of this group. We came here expecting to fight for an opportunity to win. Mater Dei played great in the first half, but our kids in the second half fought. ... They’re resilient kids. We expect that out of them, and they believed they could win throughout the game.
“I think Mater Dei may be the best team in the state overall. We’re proud of the effort.”
Eastern (22-4) struggled to manage its size disadvantage from the outset.
Led by guards Brittany and Bethany Neeley’s slashing ability all season long, the Comets were unable to get off clean shots around the outstretched arms of 6-foot-2 sophomore Tori Schickel and 5-11 junior Maura Muensterman.
As a result, Eastern connected on just 5 of its first 24 attempts from the floor. By that time, Mater Dei had built a 35-14 advantage as the teams headed into halftime.
“We knew we needed to try to contain their dribble penetration,” Mater Dei coach Steve Goans said. “[Saturday], you saw them be successful with that at times, but we needed to limit that. We wanted to make them shoot from outside, which we made them do fairly early. They shot a pretty low percentage early in the game, so we felt like we were successful there.”
Defensively, for Eastern, the size difference presented similar problems. The Comets often sent two players to guard Schickel in the post and another two to harass Muensterman at the point. Role players like senior forward Beth Fischer and junior Guard Ashlynn Spahn took advantage with eight points apiece in the first half.
Schickel and Muensterman combined for just 12 points int the first 16 minutes, but Mater Dei got seven bench points, compared to zero for Eastern, further bolstering the Wildcats’ championship chances.
“It was a bigger factor than I was afraid it might be,” Dexter said of Mater Dei’s size. “I know that Bethany was struggling with how to get shots off against Schickel. She’s really tough. You try to pump fake her and she never leaves the floor. She’s a lot taller than her 6-2 height may say with her long arms.
“Their height and ability to just throw it up and go get it hurt,” Dexter continued. “We knew we’d have to help a lot, and that left the weak side open some. Maura is a tremendous passer and did a great job of hitting those open people. Size, offensive rebounds for them in the first half — we had to adjust to that. You have to be on the floor with them to understand what their length does to you.”
After enduring a six-minute scoreless stretch in the second quarter, Eastern started the second half on a 9-2 run to pull within 37-23.
Brittany Neeley scored a pair of transition buckets in the run, Bethany Neeley added a putback and Ally Oyler canned one of her four 3-pointers to cap the run, enticing Goans to burn a timeout.
Mater Dei responded with a 6-0 mini run out of the timeout, and Eastern got no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
Brittany Neeley led the Comets with 16 points and five assists on her way to winning the Patricia L. Roy Mental Attitude Award.
Oyler added 12 points. Bethany Neeley finished with eight points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Taylor Holliday added four points and nine rebounds before injuring her right ankle in the closing minutes of the contest.
Schickel enjoyed a performance to remember. She finished the night with a game-high 18 points, going over the 1,000-point mark for her career in the final game of her sophomore campaign. She dominated the boards, finishing with a Class 2A state finals record 17 rebounds. She also blocked three shots.
She helped Mater Dei to a 43-28 advantage on the boards. The Wildcats also held advantages in points in the paint (32-22), points off of turnovers (16-11) and bench points (12-0).
Muensterman, an Indiana University recruit and 2014 Miss Basketball candidate, was held to eight points on 3-of-15 shooting, but added eight rebounds and nine assists.
Regardless of the discrepancies in the boxscore, Dexter was pleased with the way his team refused to give up the fight, something the Comets have become known for over his five seasons leading the program.
Dexter was just as proud of the community that gave his program admirable support during its captivating run to the state finals.
“This was a great opportunity for our kids and our community,” he said. “Howard County and Greentown, Ind., really showed up here for us. We just want to thank them, first and foremost, for the support they’ve given us in helping us get here. I remember looking up at our crowd and mouthing the word ‘Wow.’ We left the state finals meeting with 1,000 tickets and sold 800 of them in the first four hours. Greentown is only around 2,000 people and we had to get another 300 tickets after that. Our fan support has been tremendous.
“These kids have meant so much to me personally and to the community.”
Members of the most successful girls basketball team in school history also knew where they stood.
“It put us on the map,” Bethany Neeley said. “What we take away most from this is just the fun experience and how big of an honor it was. I thought we showed up, we just couldn’t hit shots. You can’t do anything about that, so I think we’re going to leave here trying to keep our heads up high.”
• Mater Dei will move up to Class 3A next year as part of the IHSAA’s new success factor, which takes into account how teams perform in state tournaments over two-year stretches.
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