By Justin Sokeland
NEW ALBANY – The heart of a champion can never be discounted. Bedford North Lawrence, limping and languishing as Miss Momentum turned her cheeks away and smiled on the opponent, dug deep into its pride and determination to rescue a championship.
Down double digits in the first half, with a dynasty hanging in the balance and a crown as the prize, the third-ranked Stars summoned all their resolve to rally, to finally conquer a worthy adversary, to win another Class 4A sectional title.
BNL, with its demise a real possibility, rallied in the second half for a thrilling 55-51 triumph over Jennings County in the Sectional 15 final on Saturday night. Irye Gomez sparked the charge with 19 points and Karsyn Norman added 16 as BNL (21-2) won its 10th consecutive championship.
It wasn’t a perfect ‘10’ until the end. Jennings (16-7) had the Stars locked in a submission hold, choking the life out of the defending champs. Somehow, with defensive tenacity and offensive grit, they escaped.
BNL trailed by 12 midway through the second quarter, by 33-26 at intermission and by 10 again when the Panthers started the third quarter with Brooke Mowery’s wing 3-pointer. From that point, BNL went to war, scoring 11 straight points for the lead.
That’s what champions do.
“When you get to that point, it’s not so much coaches dictating stuff on the sideline, it’s kids making plays.” BNL coach Jeff Allen said. “Kids played their hearts out. It’s what Indiana basketball is all about.”
Each possession became so critical during the dramatic late stages. Gomez dropped a corner trey that spun around the rim twice before falling, Chloe McKnight dropped a bomb from the key. After Jennings star Juliann Woodard carried the Panthers back, Norman broke free for a layup and Gomez turned a backcourt steal into a bucket.
Jennings’ Lily Ernstes answered from the lane to make it 49-47, and the final minute was reduced to tension time at the free-throw line. BNL’s Jenna Louden made four in a row, and Norman sealed BNL’s 30th straight sectional win with a final pair with 7.1 seconds left.
The Stars celebrated with the mass group hug. This one was hard, draining, difficult.
“I think I’m a little short of oxygen,” Allen said. “We had to work for that one. It’s probably a little harder on me than it used to be. But I enjoy each one so much. Holy smokes, it never gets old, winning at that level.
“I’m just so proud of this bunch. It’s tough when you have a target on your back and everybody wants you to lose, to have that confidence and pride. Especially when things aren’t going well.”
Things were not going well at all in the first half. Jennings, spewing fire and conviction as it sought to end BNL’s 20-game winning streak in the series, was superb in the first half. Woodard was unstoppable in the post, scoring 12 points, and Brooke Mowery popped a pair from distance during an 11-0 blast to the biggest lead at 26-14. The Stars were staggered, unsure of the path to victory.
“The first half had my kids back on their heels,” Allen said. “But they regrouped and my kids responded. Don’t panic. Just keeping doing what we do, and respond. I think we did that. We turned up the heat a little bit.”
Two keys were evident in the second half: McKnight was switched to front Woodard, and Gomez went on the attack on the other end, scoring 14 of her points during the rally.
“I was thinking ‘We have to get the ball in the basket,’” Gomez said. “We had to get through it. Stay calm and do what we do best.”
BNL’s defense, torn open by Woodard in the first half, also forced 11 turnovers in the second half.
“It’s like Coach Allen always says,” Norman said. “We’re a second-half team. So I thought we were fine.”
The Stars weren’t fine until that third-quarter comeback, and Gomez was the catalyst with a baseline drive, a corner trey, and another lane slash. Norman’s driving bucket at 2:01 gave BNL its first lead since 5-2.
“Things weren’t going well,” Allen said. “My kids were starting to look over ‘Oh, what do we do?’ We started playing with a little more fire in our eyes in the third quarter. You have to trust your kids.”
While the Stars didn’t shoot well, Gomez was a bright spot in that darkness, hitting 7 of 11. Chloe Spreen added 8 points.
Woodard finished with 20 points and 9 rebounds while Ernstes added 11 points and 7 boards. But when Jennings couldn’t run its attack through Woodard in the post, the Panthers started to crack. McKnight, giving up inches and weight in the interior bumps and battles, got a lot of that credit. She’s not known for defense, but perhaps she should be now.
”That was a game plan if we felt we were struggling,” Allen said. “She has a really good IQ, understands angles, understands how to play. She did a really good job.”
BNL won its 30th sectional title in program history.
“It’s amazing, 10 in a row is really good,” Gomez said. “It feels so good to be a part of it.”
“Awesome,” Norman said in summation. ”That’s really all I have to say.”
The Stars advanced to the two-game regional at BNL on Feb. 13 and will meet East Central (a 38-29 winner over Columbus North in the sectional at East Central) in the opening game at 10 a.m.
BEDFORD NL STARS (55)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
22 Irye Gomez, f 2-3 7-11 3-4 2 1 19
11 Chloe McKnight, f 2-8 2-9 0-0 5 3 6
2 Chloe Spreen, f 0-2 3-11 2-2 5 4 8
21 Karsyn Norman, g 2-5 6-16 2-3 0 2 16
23 Jenna Louden, g 0-0 0-1 4-4 3 0 4
40 Haley Deckard 0-0 1-2 0-0 2 2 2
24 Carlee Kern 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Totals 6-19 19-49 11-13 19 12 55
JENNINGS COUNTY PANTHERS (51)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
33 Lily Ernstes, f 0-0 3-3 5-5 7 3 11
0 Juliann Woodard, c 0-1 9-14 2-3 9 3 20
11 Brooke Mowery, g 3-5 3-6 0-0 2 4 9
5 Addyson Kent, g 2-9 2-9 0-0 5 3 6
14 Kali Thompson, g 1-3 2-6 0-0 0 1 5
31 MaKenna Maschino 0-0 0-0 0-0 1 1 0
20 Alivia Elmore 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Totals 6-19 19-38 7-8 28 15 51
Bedford NL 10 16 14 15 – 55
Jennings Co. 13 20 6 12 – 51
Turnovers – BNL 6, Jennings 18
Field goal percentage – BNL 19-49 (.388); Jennings 19-38 (.500)
Free throw percentage – BNL 11-13 (.846); Jennings 7-8 (.875)
ALL SECTIONAL TEAM
Juliann Woodard, Jennings County
Karsyn Norman, BNL
Irye Gomez, BNL
Chloe Spreen, BNL
Lily Ernstes, Jennings County