By BRYAN GASKINS
---- — ARCADIA — Western’s girls basketball team beat Hamilton Heights 61-43 Wednesday, bringing the Huskies’ 30-game Mid-Indiana Conference winning streak to an end.
The Huskies are five-time defending MIC champions. They won the 2010-13 tiles outright with 7-0 records. The Panthers were runners-up in ‘12 and again in ‘13, going 6-1 both times.
“Hamilton Heights has always had a good girls basketball program. It just feels great to know we finally overcame them because they’re such a great team,” Western guard Carley O’Neal said. “I’m really proud of everyone on the team. We stepped it up defensively and offensively. Just a great win.”
The Class 3A No. 9-ranked Panthers (11-2 overall) improved 5-0 in league play, putting them in the driver’s seat for their first MIC title since 2006. They are the only unbeaten left in the conference race.
Western has league games remaining against Cass and Maconaquah.
“We have to take care of business,” Western coach Chris Keisling said, “but it was a big notch forward [Wednesday].”
Western was playing its first game since Dec. 28, but it looked sharp. The Panthers were on fire from 3-point range, making 8 of 11 attempts. They finished with a decisive 38-23 rebounding advantage (16-5 offensive) and a plus-10 turnover margin. And their press was effective.
“We looked pretty sharp considering [the layoff],” Keisling said. “I had run that through my mind coming down on the bus. I had scouted a game Heights had played two nights earlier against Lewis Cass. I was thinking they had gotten a game under their belt since the break and we were going to be cold. We got some reps in practice and that helped, but you just never know when you miss that much time.
“The kids really responded [Wednesday]. I’m proud of the way they came to a tough place to play and got it done. Senior leadership all the way. They all contributed in a huge way.”
Western showed its typical excellent balance. Keisling’s five senior starters all had nice games — Carley O’Neal scored a team-high 14 points, Raven Black had a double-double of 13 points and 14 rebounds (six offensive), Kiersten Durbin had 10 points, Jessica Givens had nine points and six boards and Caitlyn O’Neal had nine points and five boards.
The Panthers also received good play from their backups. Senior post Siera Daniel provided a big spark with two points, seven rebounds (five offensive) and some nice interior passes.
How good was the Panthers’ balance? Carley O’Neal scored 13 points in the first half on 5-of-7 shooting from the field (3 of 3 from 3-land) — and then she did not attempt a shot in the second half.
“I think our balance and the way we share the ball is one of the top things that we have as a team and is a good advantage,” she said. “I’m really proud to say that, and I’m honored that people think that about us as well.”
The Panthers grabbed the lead in the opening quarter and kept it the rest of the way. They led 17-11 after the opening quarter, 37-28 at halftime and 50-31 after the third quarter.
Both squads were on fire from 3-point range in the opening quarter. The Panthers hit 5 of 8 attempts with Carley O’Neal and Durbin hitting two apiece. The Huskies hit 3 of 6.
The Panthers broke the game open with a hot stretch in the third quarter. They made 5 of 9 shots from the field, hitting their only 3-point attempt, and they were turnover-free. The Huskies had five turnovers in the quarter.
Haley Cook, who passed the 1,000-point mark for her career earlier in the week, led Heights with 20 points.
The Huskies dropped to 4-8 overall and 2-1 in the MIC.