BY DEAN HOCKNEY
INDIANAPOLIS – One year after claiming the IHSAA Class 3A state championship, the Northwestern Lady Tigers returned to Bankers Life Fieldhouse and became just the second Howard County team to win back-to-back state titles in girls basketball. For the second consecutive year, they did it in convincing fashion as top-ranked Northwestern cruised to a 61-39 win over No. 7 Benton Central.
And the 22-point margin of victory could have been much worse.
“I am so happy for these girls and what they’ve been able to accomplish in the last two years and even just this season,” said Northwestern head coach Kathie Layden. “We were just talking about coming out this year and being the Hall of Fame Classic champs and then finishing off the season as state champs, being ranked No. 1 for two years in a row. That’s not easy to do. They’ve had a target on their back and they performed.”
The Lady Tigers utilized its familiar defensive pressure to jump to an early lead. Benton Central – a fellow Hoosier Conference member – won the opening tip but committed a player control foul five seconds into the game. Junior Kendall Bostic then scored on the other end in what would become the game of her life.
After a Lady Bison score to tie the game at two, Bostic blocked a shot and scored off the break. She then stole a pass that Allison Miller converted for a bucket. Then Madison Layden stole a pass and ran the break for a 10-3 lead, which forced a Lady Bison timeout midway through the first quarter.
“We have the personnel to be able to pressure the ball and we wanted to stop penetration from their guards,” said Layden of the Lady Tigers defense. “I thought the girls did a good job of that, and our communication was good.”
After a slew of missed shots on both ends, Bostic took a pass from Layden and scored in the paint for a 12-3 lead with 1:55 left in the first stanza. Eleven seconds later, Klair Merrell found Bostic open for two, then Neher zipped a pass to Bostic followed by a second Merrell to Bostic score – and just like that, the Lady Tigers led 18-9 after one quarter with Benton Central committing 10 turnovers. Bostic hit 6 of 9 shots for 12 points and had three steals in the first eight minutes.
“My teammates gave me great passes and that allowed me to score,” said Bostic, who tied Class 3A championship game records with 15 rebounds and seven steals. “Rebounds are important to our transition offense.”
From there, the Lady Tigers (27-3) put on a clinic of passing, rebounding, defense and shooting. After starting the game 4 for 15 shooting, Northwestern hit 15 of its final 28 shots and forced another 14 turnovers over the course of the final three stanzas. The Lady Tigers held Benton Central to four second quarter points and led 29-13 at the break – Bostic had 16 of those points, hitting 8 of 11 field goal attempts.
The second half was much like the first, and Bostic had a double-double of 20 points and 12 rebounds midway through the third quarter. The 6-foot-1 center seemed unstoppable – thanks in part to the floor leadership of Layden, the sharp passing of Merrell and stout defense from the rest of the team. And if Benton Central had any thoughts of figuring out a way to stop Bostic, it went out the window when she calmly canned a 3-pointer with nine seconds left in the third quarter to stretch the lead to 45-22.
“I didn’t realize that was a 3-pointer until everyone started laughing,” Bostic said of her third triple of the season. Her teammates then started laughing again as they sat at the press conference table.
“They just throw it over the top and she catches it,” said Benton Central head coach David Baxter of Bostic. “She does a great job of keeping the ball high. We can’t defend that any better. Kudo’s to them; there just wasn’t much more we could do.”
The lead went to 30 late in the game, thanks to Layden hitting seven fourth quarter free throws. That allowed an early bench celebration as the starting five left the floor to enjoy its second dominating state finals.
Despite hitting just one 3-pointer, Layden finished with 19 points and tied the Class 3A title game record with 10 made free throws. The 2020 Miss Basketball candidate also had five steals, three assists and two steals.
Bostic earned the Sports Journal/Coca-Cola Bottling of Kokomo Player of the Game honors for her spectacular numbers of 25 points, 15 rebounds, seven steals, six blocked shots and two assists. The following day, she was named the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association Player of the Week for District 2 for the second time this season.
“Kendall does exactly what is needed for us to win every game,” said Layden. “Tonight, she did a fantastic job on defense. Then on the offensive side, she had two or three girls on her every time and she shot under pressure without hesitation. She works hard whether she is scoring five or 25 points – she just wants to win.”
Merrell finished with five assists, Katie Neher – who graced the cover of the State Finals program – had five points and two steals, Miller added four points and a pair of assists and Ellie Boyer came off the bench to score three points.
“The staple of our team is we are constantly looking for the best shot. We talk a lot about the assist, but there is also the assist to the assist that happens a lot on our team,” said Layden, whose squad will move to Class 4A next season due to the IHSAA success factor formula. “We have players on our team who I know could score more points or take more shots. For us, it is all about winning and we absolutely would not be here without our entire team and the way they play together.”
Benton Central (26-5) was led by the 11 points and six rebounds from Audrey Strawsma.