BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – To the surprise of few in Central Indiana, the Indiana Coaches of Girls Sports Association placed its No. 1 ranking on the Northwestern Lady Tigers in the preseason Class 3A girls basketball poll. Nearly three months later, it looks as through the coaches got it right as Northwestern has run the gamut of Indiana squads, posting a perfect 22-0 record against teams from the Hoosier state while also claiming a conference title.
One year after losing the Hoosier Conference title game in heartbreaking fashion on the road at West Lafayette (50-49), the East Division champion Lady Tigers hosted the West Division champion and Class 3A No. 15 Benton Central Bison in a rematch of last years sectional championship game that saw Northwestern top the Bison 59-29. Nearly a year later, not much had changed as the Tigers claimed the Hoosier Conference title in a 59-26 blowout.
“This means a lot after last year,” said sophomore Madison Layden, who led the Lady Tigers to its first conference title since 2009 in the Mid-Indiana Conference. “We have worked hard to get here.”
Northwestern jumped to a 12-2 lead against Benton Central, but only led 13-10 after the first eight minutes before taking a 33-16 lead into the halftime break. While defense was strong in the first half, forcing 18 Bison turnovers, Northwestern turned the pressure up a notch in the second half. In 16 minutes of action, the Lady Tigers held the Bison to one field goal and forced nine third quarter turnovers.
“It was a big emphasis for us to come out and play our game; to play hard. It was important to show what we could do,” said sophomore Kendall Bostic. “We had a ton of energy and keyed off of each other. We had confidence (in the third).”
“Our defense is very important,” added Madison Layden. “Our defense came out and we worked hard at it.”
Northwestern head coach Kathie Layden agreed that the third quarter defense was instrumental – and maybe even sent a message to those scouts in the stands.
“I thought in the third quarter we really came out and picked up our defense,” she said. “That was the difference.”
While the defense was dominant – the Lady Bison (17-5) were held to six total field goals while committing 30 turnovers – the Lady Tigers offense was just as effective. Layden led the way with six assists, five rebounds, four steals and 24 points (7 for 11) – 14 in the first half. She also hit 8 of 9 free throws and scored nine points in the second quarter to help put the game away.
Bostic finished with 12 points and a game-high seven rebounds and junior Taylor Boruff dropped in nine points and set the offensive pace early. Klair Merrell scored eight points and Sarah Vas added four steals on defense.
Bostic said the year difference in maturity for the young squad is paying dividends for the Tigers, whose only loss this season was a 65-63 setback to Louisville Mercy in a game played in the Bluegrass State.
“We are a different team,” said Bostic, whose squad fell in the Elite Eight last season. “When we watch film, we can see we were stronger than last year, we are all faster, and we all have more experience.”
With a conference title under its belt, the squad will look to move on to the next level of play – meaning a second consecutive sectional title and sixth overall. But the path to a title will come in unfamiliar territory as the Lady Tigers have shifted to 3A Sectional 20 at Frankfort.
“We have some time off here so we can get our minds in the right place,” said Kathie Layden. “We are going to Frankfort, which is new. We will see what the draw looks like.”
While the location is new, the draw has a familiar foe – cross-county rival Western (2-19) will be the first opponent for the Lady Tigers en route to a state title run in game two on Jan. 30 (approximately 7:30 p.m.). Frankfort (3-16) and Maconaquah (1-17) open the sectional while West Lafayette (13-7) and Peru (6-13) drew the byes. The winner will move on to the Twin Lakes Regional to play the winner of the Glenn Sectional.