The stage has been set for what could be Indiana's most historic girls basketball final ever -- two No. 1 nationally-ranked and undefeated teams, two Miss Basketball candidates, two teams looking for redemption after disappointing finishes in last season's IHSAA tournament. What more could Indiana girls basketball fans ask for?
Not much, except a grind-it-out, toe-to-toe, high-scoring, battle-to-the-final-second state championship game that will be talked about for decades to come. These teams, these players and these coaches have been converging on a date with Indiana girls basketball destiny for the past four years. The question is, will fans get what they are hoping for?
The expectations are so incredibly high and both teams are exceptionally good; but could one team be much better than the other? The Giants and the Panthers had no common in-state opponents during the season, but both teams beat Illinois power Bolingbrook at neutral sites -- Ben Davis by 14 points (42-28) early in the season and Washington by one point (66-65) at the McDonald's Chicagoland Classic in January.
Past tournament experience might be a factor. In Washington's favor, the Panthers' five starting seniors are making their fourth straight trip to the state finals -- winning it all in 2007 (left) -- and know exactly what to expect. This is the first time this group of Ben Davis players has been to the state finals, and everything will be new; although playing in Lucas Oil Stadium this year might be a bit of an equalizer in that category. Both coaches have been on the sidelines at the state finals, Stan Benge as head coach in 2000 and 2001, while Maurice Scott served as an assistant for the past three SBW trips to Conseco before taking the lead for the Panthers this season. Photo from WSBT-TV.
Both teams have drawn national attention for their stellar undefeated seasons, with Ben Davis getting the No. 1 nod from USA Today and Washington holding the top spot in the ESPN Fab 50 Rankings. Many consider this game a national high school championship, and who's to argue with them? Never in Indiana history have there been two teams sharing the No. 1 national position heading into a state championship game.
Sagarin has these teams ranked No. 1 (BD 113.39) and No. 2 (SBW 104.69), with the Giants gaining the edge in strength of schedule (7th) versus the Panthers (71st). Ben Davis has been highly tested this season with 15 wins over Sagarin Top 25 teams and 21 over Top 64 teams. South Bend Washington can claim only three victories over Top 25 teams and 11 wins over Top 64 teams, but all of this might be extremely misleading. The Panthers have made a point of seeking out a variety of nationally-ranked teams from out of state, beating them all. Sagarin doesn't factor those wins into Washington's rating or strength of schedule.
Point for point, arguments could be made for either team having an edge coming into Saturday's 4A game. Emotions will be riding high and you never know which player could end up being the x-factor in the game, helping her team walk away with the hardware and the blue necklaces. What type of heroics will we see in the game? What kind of drama will unfold? Will the officials make the right calls under incredible pressure and scrutiny? We don't know, and that's why we'll be there or watching on TV or online.
Making things even more interesting is the overriding player-on-player story line surrounding this game.
In Alex Bentley (left) and Skylar Diggins (right), you have two elite players who are both vying for Miss Basketball honors and who will most likely see a lot of head-to-head action on Saturday. Both are gamers of the highest caliber, leading their respective teams in scoring -- Diggins popping in an average of 29.0 points per game over 26 wins, and Bentley logging an average of 15.6 points per game over 29 victories.
Breaking down the offensive percentages, Diggins accounts for 36 percent of the Panthers' scoring average (80.2 ppg) on the season, while Bentley has been responsible for 24 percent of the Giant's offensive output (65.8 ppg). Throw in assists of 6.6 per game for Diggins, and that means she contributes at least another 16 percent to the SBW offense. When a single player has a hand in over 52 percent of your team's offensive output, you will live and die by that player, and the Panthers have been living it up all season. If she is healthy, you can expect Diggins to walk away with top 4A scoring honors in the game, win or lose. But don't count out Bentley to challenge those expectations on game day. She has a reputation for pouring it on when the stakes are the highest and the spotlight is the brightest. She has much to prove and nothing to lose with most of the Miss Basketball hype following Diggins. Regardless of the outcome, I think we will see legendary performances from both of these players.
Beyond the much anticipated matchup between these two marquee players, it might be the supporting casts that determine the game's outcome. For the most part, both teams go about eight or nine players deep.
You have Massachusetts recruit and Elkhart transfer Jasmine Watson coming on late for the Panthers. She is averaging 11.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and gives Washington a presence in the post that they did not have early in the season. D-I prospect Takoia Larry (right) is an extremely gifted power forward who plays hard every minute of every game. She's been a warrior in the paint, averaging 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds, logging six points above her average the past the past two games. Little 5'2 point guard Karis Phillips (7.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) is a defensive stalwart that can also drop threes from all over. She canned five long-distance daggers against South Bend Clay in the Sectional final and four in the Regional final against Michigan City. And you definitely do not want to put this pixie on the charity stripe at the end of the game with a .857 free throw percentage. The most unheralded player on Washington's team is senior forward Rakeesha Lane, who does all of the dirty work for the Panthers in the paint. Even though she only averages 6.1 points per game, at just 5'9 she pulls down a considerable 6.2 rebounds per game and will rip every contested ball out of her opponents' hands. The Panthers also get valuable minutes from freshman Shareita Patton (4.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg), senior Jazmine Watson (3.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) and freshman Brytney Bennett (2.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg).
Ben Davis counters with a very strong supporting lineup that includes three Division 1 level players. Strong and athletic 5'11 junior guard and Purdue commit Dee Dee Williams is averaging an all-around 7.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Reliable senior forward and Western Michigan signee DeAirra Goss (left) is averaging 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, while sophomore sister and highly regarded D-1 guard prospect Bria Goss is contributing with 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game with a stellar .560 field goal percentage. Ben Davis's other sister duo and three-point threats Emily Huber (NAIA Ave Maria) and Jordan Huber (a Ball State verbal) combine for 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Starting 5'11 junior forward Vivian Holcomb (3.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is a steady contributor and shares time with 5'8 junior forward Demitria Nunley-Lash (4.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg). Senior guard Chanel Simmons has been a regular contributor with backup minutes, averaging 2.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.
With their smothering defense, the Giants have held their opponents to just 35.07 points per game this season, 10th best in the state and second best in 4A. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the No. 1 offensive team in the state, as the Panthers have racked up a dazzling 80.19 points per game this season. Washington, who doesn't even rank in the Top 50 defensively, is a high-octane scoring machine driven by Diggins. If she has an off night or gets frustrated with the Ben Davis defense, the Giants could find their way to the winners' podium unless SBW's supporting cast can fill the scoring gaps.
No matter how you look at it and if you a true fan of Indiana girls basketball, Saturday's game will be one that you'll want to say that you attended five, ten or 20 years from now. We think it's going to be an epic!
Even though the 4A game is the main event of the day for most Indiana girls basketball fans, it won't be the tournament highlight for the fans and followers of the teams participating in Saturday's three other championship games. There is much to like about those three games as well, with some compelling stories surrounding each game.
1A - Defending Champ vs. The Little School That Could (and Definitely Can)
Here you have two teams that start no seniors, which means you could see both of these teams back at the state finals again next year with a little luck. No. 7 Fort Wayne Canterbury starts three juniors and two sophomores, while No. 1 Vincennes Rivet starts five sophomores.
Leading the way for Canterbury is 5'11 junior forward Tabitha Gerardot, who has been absolutely dominant for the Cavaliers with 23.1 points and 13.0 rebounds per game this season, while shooting .558 from the field. Junior forward Cassie Kreiger has also been key, contributing 11.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Both Gerardot and Kreiger are bona fide three-point threats, shooting .474 and .451, respectively, from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard Becky Pedro chips in 7.7 points to go with a team-high 5.1 assists per game and is a very solid shooter. Junior guard Paige Wells and sophomore forward Madison Moyle have combined for 8.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during their 22-4 season. Don't expect much in the way of substitutions for Canterbury, other than senior long-range wing Megan Pedro, who is in top form after ankle surgery earlier in the season and who came up HUGE at semi-state with 19 points off the bench. At last year's final, only three minutes were attributable outside of the starting five. The fate of this team again rests in the hands of the starters and Pedro. Throughout the season, the Cavaliers have prepared themselves for the post-season by taking on some tough opponents, including Fort Wayne Elmhurst. They notched a 62-54 win over their 3A state finalist counterpart from the north in January. As last year's 1A state champions, head coach Scott Kreiger and the Cavaliers know what to expect at this level and will be looking to upset the favorite to claim back-to-back titles.
Vincennes Rivet is the "Hoosiers" team of the tournament with a total enrollment of only 92 students total, making them the smallest school ever to compete at the girls state finals. The sophomore class of Rivet, together with head coach Tim Young, have literally taken this team to new heights, rallying a community around its team. Even losing their best player -- junior guard Chelsea Meeks (16.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.3 apg) -- three games into the season hasn't deterred this goal-oriented bunch. A balanced lineup with no huge stars, the Patriots are all about team play and collective results. Their best weapon is having the ability of any one of their players to come up huge in any given game. Who do you put the defensive pressure on? It doesn't matter, because someone else will pick up the slack. Rivet has had five different players lead them in scoring during their tournament run. Sharp-shooting 5'7 guard Sara Young leads the Patriots in scoring with 10.2 points per game, to go along with 5.5 assists per game. She is followed by 5'7 guard Casandra Brocksmith with 9.0 points and 3.9 rebounds, and 5'9 forward Emily Montgomery with 8.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Forwards Erin Wehrheim (6.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, at right) and Emily Niehaus (5.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg) round out the starting five, while 5'8 freshman guard Elizabeth Keller can come in without any drop in performance with 8.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Going to the big dance for the first time might have them starry-eyed for a few minutes into the game, but don't expect it to last. They are just too good. Photo from the Commercial-Sun.
2A - Battle of the Birds - Seeking Domination of the Haliaeetus Leucocephalus Kingdom
It's Eagles v. Eagles for the second year in a row for Class 2A, but with a twist. If the No. 1 Heritage Christian Eagles can defeat the No. 2 Oak Hill Golden Eagles, they will place their program in Hoosier girls basketball lore as only the second team ever to win four straight championship crowns. But Owen Valley could care less about a HC four-peat. They want the gold for themselves.
If you've been living in a cave this season, you wouldn't know that Heritage Christian has a super bona fide Miss Basketball candidate in Kelly Faris (14.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.9 apg, .539 fgp, left) the 5'11 guard/forward headed to Connecticut this fall. Her do-everything play, along with the outstanding presence of Butler recruit Claire Freeman (13.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.3 apg), has been the cornerstone of the HC program the past four years. Faris's signing with the Huskies this past fall, together with victories over some pretty stiff out-of-state competition, have garnered the Eagles national ranking status by ESPN (No. 8) and USA Today (No. 14). The Eagles and head coach Rick Risinger have challenged themselves throughout the season against opponents outside of their class and state, which has prepared them for whatever may come on Saturday. Heritage Christian basically goes nine deep. Sharp-shooting senior guard Emily Anderson averages 11.1 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, while 6'3 sophomore forward Liz Stratman contributes with 11.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. As a freshman in last year's final, Stratman came up huge with 10 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. No rookie jitters there, and with another year under her belt, she could be key this year again. Junior forward Kaycee Jones rounds out the starting five at 5.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, while sophomore forward Maddie Anderson (5.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg), senior guard Meredith Martin (3.7 ppg) and senior guard Alyssa Burton (2.7 ppg) provide valuable relief minutes.
Oak Hill is tired of bridesmaid status and is determined to walk down the aisle for the gold ring this time around. The Golden Eagles rely heavily on their starting five, led by fabulous junior point guard and Purdue recruit Courtney Moses (right) who leads Oak Hill in points (18.3) and assists (6.4). The tireless floor leader is a tenacious defender and her court vision is probably unparalleled among point guards at the state finals on Saturday. We think we will see a much better performance than she produced last time at the state finals. The .535 field goal shooter finished with only six points and three assists last March. Moses shares backcourt responsibilities with 5'6 senior guard and three-point threat Lauren Meese (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.6 apg). In the front court, 6'0 sophomore power forward Marissa Coolman (5.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and 5'10 senior wing Kristen Hicks (11.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg) provide lots of offensive muscle for head coach Todd Law, but it is tall and talented 6'4 junior center Ashley Pickering who provides the firepower in the paint. Averaging nearly a double-double (16.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg) on the season, Pickering will need to come up huge on both sides of the ball if Oak Hill has any chance of winning. In last year's championship game, she was held to just three points in the double-digit loss and fouled out in just 22 minutes of play. One of the most interesting matchups of the game will be between Pickering and Heritage Christian's Stratman (left). If fans are lucky, this game will be a back and forth battle that comes down to the wire for a fantastic finish.
3A - Size & Speed v. Teamwork & Determination -
An intriguing matchup of state finals first-timers is on tap for the 3A state championship game. When most bets around the state were on a No. 1 Benton Central v. No. 6 Crawfordsville final, No. 4 Fort Wayne Elmhurst and No. 10 Owen Valley had much different ideas in mind.
The 24-2 Elmhurst Trojans come into Saturday's game on a 10-game winning streak, with their last loss to 2A state contender Oak Hill (71-56) in January and their only other loss to 1A finalist Fort Wayne Canterbury (62-54) the same month. Head coach Mark Redding relies heavily on senior Lecretia Smith (right) for leadership and interior offensive firepower. The 5'10 guard/forward, who is headed to Toledo in the fall, is averaging a blazing 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting .560 from the field. Double-digit sophomore scorer Lacia Gorman leads the backcourt with 14.2 points and 4.3 assists per game. A great addition to the lineup for her second varsity season is 6'2 sophomore Purdue recruit Liza Clemons, who is dead-on at close range with 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting over 60% from the field. She is a beast in the paint and with no player over 5'10 on the roster, Owen Valley will get all they can handle from Clemons. Junior guard Cora Tatum (8.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and 5'7 freshman guard Rosie Lewis (5.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) round out the starting five. Relief minutes come from junior forward Danielle Roberson (3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg), freshman center Karah Peppler (2.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) and freshman guard TeSharra Thomas (2.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg). Don't expect to see too much outside shooting from the Trojans. As a team they only average .255 from beyond the arc, with Gorman averaging just over .280 for the highest long-range percentage of the Trojans starters. However, Tatum, who has been average from three-point land on the season, came up huge with two key treys in the win over Benton Central. Instead, expect the Trojans to feed off of their patented full court pressure defense to turn the ball over for easy layups. The 9-0 Summit League champions are eager to prove they belong with the elite teams in the state. Defeating Benton Central was definitely a wake up call for many who were overlooking Elmhurst throughout the season. Photo from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
Owen Valley is riding a wave of euphoria and community support heading into Saturday's game after upending Crawfordsville in a very close semi-state final. Head coach Tom Anderson has great faith in his players, which include a seasoned group of all upperclassmen starters. Senior wing Heather Gonser (#24 at left) leads the charge for the Patriots, averaging 14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. She can score from anywhere on the floor and averages .527 from the field and a very, very solid .387 from beyond the arc. She gets help from 5'9 twin Nickole Gonser (#32 at left) who is not far behind Heather with a stat line of 12.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. She cleans up inside, while her sister and senior guards Adrian Gillaspy (9.0 ppg) and Sam Cooper (8.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) keep opposing defenses honest on the perimeter. Junior 5'9 forward Kaitlin Sweatman is also a force in the paint, averaging 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds over Owen Valley's 24-2 season. She came up with a huge block that secured their win over Crawfordsville last Saturday with just seconds left in the game. Sweatman and the Gonsers all have a nose for the ball and take pride in their reputation for effectively crashing the boards. Look for 5'4 senior three-point specialist Micah York (2.9 ppg) and sophomore guard Mack Evans (5.8 ppg) to spell Gillaspy and Cooper. York is dead-on from outside with a .467 three-point percentage. This group works well together on defense, getting deflections and steals at critical game points. A hard working, close-knit group who will relish the entire state finals experience, the Trojans have nothing to lose and everything to gain in the spotlight of the state tournament. The 6-0 Western Indiana Conference champs represent a community that is extremely proud to have its first-ever state finalist team in any sport. Photos from My Wabash Valley.
State Finals Information:
Class A State Championship – 10:30 am ET
Fort Wayne Canterbury (22-4) vs. Vincennes Rivet (23-1)
Class 2A State Championship – follows Class A game
Oak Hill (27-1) vs. Heritage Christian (25-1)
Class 3AState Championship – 6 pm ET
Fort Wayne Elmhurst (24-2) vs. Owen Valley (24-2)
Class 4AState Championship – follows Class 3A game
South Bend Washington (26-0) vs. Ben Davis (29-0)
Live webcast - IHSAAsports.org (you need to create a free account to watch)