BY DEAN HOCKNEY
WEST LAFAYETTE – It was a celebration 23 years in the making and the girls of Western High School wanted to make it last. For the first time since 1989, the Lady Panthers advanced to the regional round of the state tournament after they downed Twin Lakes 58-28 in the IHSAA Class 3A West Lafayette Sectional. To say they were happy is an understatement.
“It feels great,” said first year head coach Chris Keisling, who could barely get through the post-game interview because so many fans were congratulating him on doing his part to end the drought and advance the Lady Panthers to its first-ever Sweet Sixteen. “I wanted it so badly for this team and the seniors. I can’t explain the joy I am feeling. The feelings are unbelievable.”
In the sectional, Western nearly made a laughing-stock of the competition as they held all three opponents to under 30 points. Despite not being ranked, Western (17-6) disposed of West Lafayette (47-29) Peru (72-26) and Twin Lakes (58-28), utilizing a suffocating defense and superior shooting – with an emphasis on the defense.
“I wasn’t even born yet the last time we won a sectional,” said junior guard Allison Lindley with a laugh. “So I am excited. We have played together for a long time. Our defense has been really solid and that is something we have worked hard on. We focus on defense and when our defense is on, it helps our offense.”
Jessica Givens agrees.
“We are built around defense and we have really played well in this tournament on defense,” said the sophomore. Givens had a huge tournament for the Lady Panthers. She entered the sectional averaging just over seven points per game, but poured in 13 against West Lafayette and Peru, and 16 in the decisive championship game. She hit 15 of 27 shots (55 percent) in the three-game series, including a 9 of 17 (53 percent) from beyond the arc.
But this team is built around the school’s all-time leading scorer and Indiana All-Star candidate Nicole Rogers – and that didn’t change during the sectional. Despite a cold shooting day against West Lafayette, she led the Lady Panthers in scoring and rebounding in all three games. She recorded a pair of double-doubles, including an 18 point, 16 rebound performance against Peru and a 27 point, 11 rebound championship game outing. And along the way she picked up her 500th point of the season and her 1,500th point of her career – the latter placed her third all-time in Howard County.
In the championship game, Rogers hit 3-pointers on two of Western’s first three possessions as the team opened an 8-0 lead against a Twin Lakes team that seemed overwhelmed from the start.
“That is exactly how I wanted to come out,” said Rogers, who had 11 of Western’s 15 first quarter points and her 29 points were more than the entire Twin Lakes team scored. “My team did a great job of getting me open and getting me the ball. I just came out hot and got our offense going, and everyone fed off of that. We said we would fight until the end, and we did. I don’t want this season to end.
“I am so proud of how this whole team played defense. That is what we wanted. It was great how we came out and kept them from scoring.”
Keisling – as he has all year – had nothing but praise for Rogers.
“She took the bull by the horns tonight,” he said. “What a performance. If she is not an Indiana All-Star, I don’t know what to offer up as an Indiana All-Star. She has driven the ball, handled the ball, rebounded the ball, shot the ball, passed the ball; I can’t say enough about her. She has been a team leader as well.”
Western has a special group of seniors – Rogers, Lauren Taylor and Amber Fernung – have successfully endured the stressful transition of a new head coach in each of their high school seasons. And the payoff is removing the monkey from the back of the Lady Panthers basketball program, and for the fourth time in school history, winning a girls basketball sectional title.
“It was worth the wait,” said Rogers. “This is so much fun. We knew we could do it – we are sectional champs!”