LAPORTE — Northwestern’s girls basketball team is heading back to the State Finals.
The No. 1-ranked Tigers overcame a slow start to beat No. 6 Penn 56-46 in a physical battle in the Class 4A North Semistate on Saturday at LaPorte.
Northwestern (29-0) advances to face No. 8 Lawrence North (25-4) in the Class 4A state championship next Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Tigers are looking for a state three-peat after winning the 2018 and ‘19 Class 3A titles. That success bumped them up to Class 4A, which is filled with the state’s largest schools.
“It’s so awesome to be able to be playing these big 4A teams and to be able to beat them,” point guard Madison Layden said. “One more game.”
Layden and Kendall Bostic led the Tigers in the semistate win with their typical Miss Basketball-caliber play. Layden scored 23 points and also had four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Bostic had 24 points, 12 rebounds and three assists.
“When their two studs have 47 of their 56,” Penn coach Kristi Ulrich said, “that’s pretty tough to overcome.”
Penn (27-3) put Northwestern on its heels in the first quarter. Guard Trinity Clinton repeatedly attacked the basket in the halfcourt and in transition to score 11 points, the Tigers committed six turnovers, Madison Layden picked up two fouls and the Kingsmen led 16-8 at the end of the quarter.
“In the first quarter, it takes a little bit of time to get used to your opponent, the pace of the game, the way it’s going to be officiated,” Northwestern coach Kathie Layden said, noting the Tigers had to adjust to Penn’s speed. “I think the thing I’m most proud about with our girls is that they weathered that storm and kept their composure.”
The Tigers opened the second quarter with an 11-2 run to go ahead 19-18, their first lead of the game. Penn regained the lead when Jordyn Smith hit a 3-pointer after the Kingsmen set a hard screen on Madison Layden.
Like against Homestead in the Marion Regional final, Madison Layden had an answer for the physical play. She had six points and one assist over the final 2:46 of the half to help the Tigers take a 27-23 halftime lead. She scored on a pair of determined drives right after the hard screen.
The Tigers in the second quarter clicked on both ends. Defensively, they took away Clinton (0 of 3). Offensively, they made 5 of 6 shots, and they did not commit a turnover after having six in the first quarter.
“It was very physical at the beginning. I think we had to work through that a little bit,” Bostic said. “We had to adjust and get through that and we started to fight back.”
Madison Layden continued her hot hand in the second half. After Penn went ahead 30-29, Layden scored nine points to fuel an 11-1 run over the final 5:00 of the third quarter. She capped the run with a 3-pointer.
Penn came within four on two occasions in the fourth quarter (43-39 and 45-41). Each time, Northwestern responded with Bostic scoring inside, the first time on an assist from Madison Layden and the second time on an interior assist from Sarah Heaver as the Tigers spread the floor and attacked with quick passes.
When Layden followed with a blocked shot and another assist to Bostic inside, the Tigers had firm control with a 49-41 lead at 2:08.
The Tigers hit 7 of 10 free throws in the final minute to seal their 36th straight victory and a spot in the State Finals.
Penn simply did not have an answer for Northwestern’s dynamic duo in the second half as Bostic and Madison Layden combined to score 27 of the Tigers’ 29 points.
“They have two of the best players in the entire state,” Ulrich said, “and they made us pay each time we made a mistake.”
Also for the Tigers, Klair Merrell had five points and three rebounds and McKenna Layden had four points, four rebounds and two assists. McKenna Layden also took a charge that helped spark the Tigers’ 11-1 run in the third quarter.
Northwestern’s defense largely took away Penn’s drives after the first quarter. The Kingsmen made 6 of 10 shots in the fist quarter, but just 12 of 33 the rest of the way. Bostic helped take away Penn’s attacks when she had back-to-back blocks on a possession early in the second quarter.
“Teams don’t drive on us because our zone is so packed in so when they started to drive [in the first quarter] it kind of took us a minute,” Bostic said. “I think overall, we started to pack it in a little bit and we started to go straight up and different things like that. Our guards did a great job of kind of handling them up top.”
Clinton finished with 18 points to lead Penn. Kaitlyn Costner, another attacking guard, had 14. Reganne Pate, who came in with a state-best 95 3-pointers made on 43% accuracy, was held to 1 of 5 from 3-land.
“I felt we needed a little more ball movement,” Ulrich said. “We were just trying to go at times instead of getting the ball movement and then trying to probe into the teeth of the defense. They shadowed Reganne all night long, but we had some other kids who had some open looks and they didn’t pull the trigger.”
After overpowering sectional and regional opponents, the Tigers proved ready for a game that was hard fought to the end.
“They’re a great them,” Kathie Layden said of Penn. “They’re well coached, they have great players. It was an exciting game. I think our girls enjoy games that are a little different than what we’ve been in so it was fun.”