By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The challenge was issued. Jennings County absorbed the first blow, threw every defensive design in the repertoire at the defending champion, and clawed within a single possession late in the third quarter. Nervous? Sweaty palms? Tight throat? That would have been the time.
Challenged accepted. When big plays needed to be made, No.7 Bedford North Lawrence rose to the occasion, because that’s what champions do. In a battle that probably should have been scripted much later in this tournament, the Stars showed the moxie and guts that has won them all those titles.
Forced to respond, BNL delivered, fighting off a valiant foe in the opening game of the Class 4A sectional on Wednesday night. With Karsyn Norman leading the way, with huge contributions from Mallory Pride and reserve Tori NIkirk, the Stars conquered Jennings County 51-38 while advancing to the semifinal round in the quest for their 12th straight championship.
Norman scored 16 points, the bulk coming in the second half, and Pride added 13 (11 straight during a key early run) as the Stars (21-3) survived and moved on to face Jeffersonville in the next round. For the record, that’s 34 consecutive sectional victories, that’s 25 straight over the Panthers, and that’s milestone win No.200 for BNL coach Jeff Allen.
A lot of those 200 have been easy. This one was definitely not. After the Stars stormed to a 13-point lead in the first half, and threatened to leave the Panthers in the dust behind them, Jennings (16-6) bared teeth and bit hard. Juliann Woodard’s trey from the key late in the third quarter erased all but two points of the BNL advantage.
BNL’s answer? Chloe Spreen’s bomb at the buzzer. Norman’s cut to a basket off a Pride pass. Madisyn Bailey’s steal for layup, and Pride’s close-range bucket via a Spreen dish. Order was restored. BNL was safe. The sense of relief was palpable. That was hard.
“Didn’t we know it was going to be?” Allen said. “We always think ‘Maybe we can get away from them this time.’ They’re just too good, too competitive. It’s the sectional environment. The sectional is just a different animal. You’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
BNL’s best was the stifling 16-0 run that created the Jennings urgency to climb out of the pit of postseason despair. And Pride did all that digging. With the Panthers focused on Spreen and Norman, with a tricky triangle-and-two defense locked on BNL’s high-scoring duo, Pride got free for four point-blank buckets. At that point, Jennings had gone over eight minutes without scoring. Minutes later, Emma Crane connected from the circle and BNL was comfortable at 20-7.
Then came the Jennings surge that BNL’s coaching staff expected. Madelyn McIntosh and Megan Vogel swished 3-pointers, McIntosh turned a steal into a layup, and Jennings was within 23-17 at the half. After Nikirk stunned Jennings with two bombs in the third quarter, Mollie Ernstes converted a rebound and Woodard drilled another bonus bomb for a 34-32 difference.
“What was the chances of them making a run back? We knew that would happen,” Allen said. “They’re just too good. We hung in there and made plays.”
BNL had won the regular-season clash by a nearly-identical 52-39 count, although the Stars won that one without Spreen. They almost had to duplicate that, because the Spreen jumper to end the third was her lone field goal among her 7 points. So the two treys by Nikirk (who had scored a total of 15 varsity points all season) were so crucial. Jennings dared her to launch, and she refused a few times. Then, boom, long distance for a 31-23 lead. Bang, another for 34-25. With BNL teetering a little, those were steadying baskets.
“I was thinking, in my mind, I have to do this,” Nikirk said. “It was like ‘Oh, no, I got to go.’ Then I hit that, and it was ‘let’s go.’ I had to take advantage of it and show them I could shoot it.”
“I’ve got options over there on the bench,” Allen said. “I kind of went through a few of them. And I always tell those kids, you never know when Coach Allen will call you. Be ready to go in there and perform. Just a remarkable job by her, making those two shots was huge.”
Woodard paced Jennings, which had fallen in four straight sectional finals against its nemesis, with 16 points and 8 rebounds. Ernstes added 10 points.
“I was really nervous,” Norman said. “This was a huge game, it’s always a closer game. This is sectional, and it’s different. I knew it would come hard. When I saw that sectional draw, it was going to be a tough battle. It just gets us ready for the road we have to go.“
Pride was 5 for 5 from the floor, and the Stars were deadly at the line, hitting 11 of 12. That helped make up for 13 turnovers.`
“There was a little nerves involved, sometimes the execution is not so great because of that,” Allen said. “That was a great basketball game between two really good teams. It’s a shame one of them had to go home.”
Allen’s 200th win was celebrated in the locker room with a commemorative limestone (of course) plaque. He trails only Pete Pritchett in career wins with the program.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s a ton of memories, all good,. I’d like to make a few more along the way.”
The first round will continue on Thursday, with Floyd Central (10-12) meeting Silver Creek (12-9) in the first game at 6, followed by the rematch between New Albany (4-19) and Seymour (13-9). Those winners will collide in the second semifinal on Friday, following the BNL-Jeffersonville clash at 6 p.m.
JENNINGS COUNTY PANTHERS (38)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
00 Juliann Woodard, f 2-7 4-14 6-6 8 4 16
22 Megan Vogel, f 1-1 2-6 0-0 8 2 5
33 Manto Vadell, g 0-0 1-3 0-2 0 3 2
31 Mollie Ernstes, g 1-4 3-7 3-4 5 2 10
5 Madelyn McIntosh, g 1-3 2-7 0-0 4 2 5
2 Avynn Belding 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
3 Abrey Belding 0-1 0-1 0-0 1 0 0
Totals 5-15 12-38 9-12 27 13 38
BEDFORD NL STARS (51)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
2 Chloe Spreen, f 1-3 1-8 4-4 5 3 7
22 Mallory Pride, f 0-0 5-5 3-4 5 1 13
24 Madisyn Bailey, g 0-0 2-4 0-0 5 2 4
20 Emma Brown, g 1-4 1-5 0-0 2 1 3
21 Karsyn Norman, g 2-5 5-11 4-4 3 2 16
32 Trinidy Bailey 0-0 0-1 0-0 1 1 0
50 Emma Crane 0-0 1-1 0-0 1 0 2
12 Tori Nikirk 2-2 2-3 0-0 1 2 6
3 Katie Baumgart 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Totals 6-14 17-38 11-12 24 12 51
Jennings Co. 3 14 15 6 – 38
Bedford NL 14 9 14 14 – 51
Turnovers – Jennings Co. 15, BNL 13
Field goal percentage – Jennings Co. 12-38 (.316); BNL 17-38 (.447)
Free throw percentage – Jennings Co. 9-12 (.750); BNL 11-12 (.917)