BY DEAN HOCKNEY
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – The dream that was born with five young girls in 2006 became a reality on Saturday night when the Western Lady Panthers hoisted its first IHSAA girls basketball championship trophy – and to do it, they had to shock the state. When the final horn sounded at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, the sixth-ranked Lady Panthers found themselves on the victorious side of a 38-35 stunning victory over the heavily favored and No. 2-ranked Lady Wildcats of Evansville Mater Dei in the Class 3A championship game.
“Outstanding effort by these ladies,” said Western coach Chris Keisling. “I am the coach of this team, but it is nothing if these girls don’t go out and flat out execute the things we ask of them. And boy, did they do an outstanding job. We beat such a great, quality opponent. We knew we had a big job in front of us. I can’t say enough about their execution tonight.”
A senior dominated team, it was the five-some of Carley and Caitlyn O’Neal, Jessica Givens, Kiersten Durbin and Kaysie Mulkey who have long talked about wanting to win a state championship since they first played together in elementary school. They flirted with destiny as sophomores with a Final Four appearance. But with the emergence of fellow seniors Siera Daniel and Raven Black, this year’s team saw its dream come true. The title is the first for the Lady Panthers basketball team and third for the school, joining the 2001 girls golf team and the 2012 Class 3A baseball squad.
“This is going to be a memorable moment for all of us,” said Durbin. “This is what we have been working for since the fifth grade in our very first game together.”
Mater Dei entered the title bout as the two-time defending Class 2A state champion (they were bumped to 3A due to the IHSAA Success Factor). But from the opening jump, the Panthers proved that they were in the Hulman Center to compete, leading 17-12 after one period thanks to a trio of 3-pointers from Givens – baskets that got the large Western crowd into the game while quieting Mater Dei’s – and a buzzer-beating jumper from Black.
“When I came out, I was really pumped up and ready to go,” said Givens. “I think when I hit those three’s, I got the whole crowd fired-up and our team pumped up. With getting those shots, it helped give us the confidence we needed.”
After an up-and-down first quarter, Keisling slowed his squad down – nearly to a halt – and controlled the tempo. While a lid was put on the Western basket, a relentless 2-3 zone disrupted the Wildcats and Miss Basketball candidate Maura Muensterman, an Indiana recruit. And that is exactly what Keisling wanted.
“We knew we had to control the tempo,” said Keisling, whose son Austin won a sectional title at Lewis Cass the same night his dad was winning a state championship. “We tried to find video where they faced a 2-3, but just couldn’t find where they had. So with what appeared like a lack of 2-3 they had faced, we thought we might be effective at it since they hadn’t seen it. I told our girls that in my opinion we run the best 2-3 in the state, and it would be hard for them to make that adjustment.”
Tied at 21 at the break, Mater Dei scored the first two baskets of the second half to grab a four-point lead due in part to five Western turnovers. But 19 seconds after the second Wildcats basket fell, Caitlyn O’Neal answered with a 3-pointer and late in the quarter twin sister Carley did the same to retake the lead 27-25. It would also mark the last time they trailed.
“Our team can all handle, pass and shoot the ball,” said Keisling. “When I took this team three years ago, I heard how they were undefeated in junior high – but the one key thing is the kind of kids they are. They work hard and have great work ethic. They all had the skill level to win and the grittiness it takes to be a winner.”
In the fourth stanza, the slow-down, controlled pace continued to serve the Russiaville squad well. Muensterman hit a pair of free throws at the 6:16 mark to tie the game, but Kiersten Durbin hit her only basket of the game 47 seconds later to put the Panthers back up by two. Daniel hit a basket in the paint and Carley O’Neal sliced the defense for a score at the three minute mark to increase the lead to five. At the 1:05 mark, Black hit a free throw, only to see Muensterman close the lead to 36-33 with a 3-pointer – the only fourth quarter field goal Mater Dei would hit. Clinging to a two-point lead, Daniel hit two free throws with 22 seconds remaining to slam the door shut on the Wildcats and secure the Western state title.
“Kiersten had a huge dagger bucket and a huge steal late in the game – that was a game-changer at that point,” said Keisling. “And Raven’s defense was outstanding. And huge free throws from Siera Daniels.”
Carley O’Neal led Western with 12 points, while Givens dropped in nine and Black added six points and grabbed seven rebounds. Daniel had five blocks for the Panthers in a total team performance. Muensterman led Mater Dei with 12 points while Tori Schickel dropped in 11 points while grabbing 15 rebounds.
“The support we received from the community has been tremendous,” said Keisling of the Panthers sixth-man in the stands – the fan support. “It was two great crowds tonight, but ours travels very well. We just had great backing tonight.”
Backing that helped Western win the state title.