Who saw this coming? Central, Jasper girls advance to Class 4A sectional final
EVANSVILLE — Be truthful. Did you see this coming?
Not just this team being in the championship, although that may have raised eyebrows a week ago. It’s how it happened and against who. Two of the best efforts you’ll see this season on the biggest stage.
But there is an answer to the question: Central saw this coming. That’s why it is still playing.
Central defeated rival North 44-38 on Friday to advance to the IHSAA Class 4A girls basketball sectional championship. It'll be the first trip to the final for the program in six years. It comes after beating not just the Huskies but also pre-sectional favorite Castle in the opener.
IHSAA girls basketball:Scores, schedule for sectionals across Southwestern Indiana
The Bears (14-11) took aim at their toughest competition and delivered knockout blows. They face Jasper in the championship on Monday.
“Our girls wanted this,” said Central coach Dave Alexander. “They showed up and competed.”
The bar was set on Thursday. Central erased a double-digit deficit in the second half with strong defense against Castle. The semifinal felt different. This came against a rival in one of the best atmospheres of the season. It came down to the final minute.
Central took the lead for good in the second quarter only to see it dwindle to one possession with under two minutes. Past teams may have crumbled. Not this one. Maddy Shirley, a freshman, hit a three from the wing. The Huskies didn’t score again.
The Bears lost six times going into Thanksgiving break. The team you see this week is not that team.
“These girls have played with confidence the last month,” said Alexander. “They don’t ever get too high or too low. Our strongest asset is if there is time on the clock we still have a chance.”
That confidence played a role in this outcome. Central’s strength is in the frontcourt. Shirley posted 25 points and 15 rebounds in the win against Castle. Alexander knew an opponent would eventually zone and force the Bears to shoot. It happened in the semifinal.
North found success with its base 2-3 zone mixed with a half-court trap. It led 12-5 after the opening quarter. That’s when Central finally let it fly and flipped this game.
The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the second quarter and nine for the game. The latter is a season-high for a team that only shot 22% from deep in the regular season. Shirley finished with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, but this game was won on the perimeter.
Mimi White had 13 points and Mya Skelton added 12. They combined for six treys, all after the first quarter.
“It’s about time,” said Skelton. “The energy was brought up so much. We were so hyped. It’s our mentality. Yes, those were good teams but we have confidence. That’s what brought us here.”
Jalyn Shelby led North (17-7) with a game-high 17 points. She became the fourth in program history to score 1,000 career points with a bucket inside early in the third quarter. Amyiah Buchanan added eight points and six boards.
Central last won a sectional championship in 2017, the final year of a three-peat. Those were expected. The Bears were the dominant team in the city with a combined six regular-season losses during that stretch.
This would be different. But this was also a young team – the entire rotation returns next year – learning to win. It has an opportunity on Monday to do just that.
“I said from the beginning I thought this sectional was wide open,” said Alexander. “I don’t know if a lot of people had Central and Jasper.”
Jasper Wildcats growing in confidence following a semifinal win
Jasper wouldn’t have been on the shortlist at the start of the season or even this week. Again, it didn’t matter. Like its championship opponent, this also is a team playing its best at the right moment.
The Wildcats advanced with a 43-33 win over Reitz in Friday's first semifinal. It will be their first championship appearance since 2015 and first since moving up to Class 4A five years ago. The reasoning is simple: It hasn’t allowed more than 35 points in the last six games.
“I love how much our confidence as a team has grown,” said Jasper coach Brittany Maners. “We’re really playing very cohesive as a team. To see the confidence grow has been a lot of fun.”
This has been an impressive turnaround in Maners’ first season. Jasper only won four games last season. It also stood at 3-9 going into Christmas until something changed over the holidays. The Wildcats started winning. They, too, started believing.
Jasper (12-14) finished second in the Toby Yoho Classic at Eastern Greene. It won its final three regular-season games before besting Harrison and Reitz in the sectional. The Wildcats took control against the Panthers by finding quality shots and staying patient. A 13-2 run starting in the third quarter pushed the lead to double digits.
“We’re doing a really good job of finding our identity,” said Maners. “That’s locking down on defense. Another thing is taking great shots. When we execute both of those things, we can compete with good teams.”
Emma Schipp was the catalyst for the win against Reitz (10-11). The junior had a game-high 19 points with most coming in the second half. Her back-to-back 3-point plays in the fourth quarter stuffed a potential Panther run.
Carlee Rogers had eight points and Tori Brandt hit a pair of threes. Jasper chose its moments when to attack and kept Reitz from scoring in transition. Only Norah Miller (15 points and six rebounds) was in double digits.
Maners is no stranger to success. She was in charge of that Central three-peat from 2015-17 before producing several winning seasons at Princeton. She’ll now attempt to beat her former program for another championship.
"Both teams have improved since we’ve played them,” she said prior to the second semifinal. “We’ll stick to (defense and taking great shots). Taking care of the basketball will be critical no matter who we play.”
Follow Courier & Press sports reporter Kyle Sokeland on Twitter @kylesokeland.
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: IHSAA basketball: Central, Jasper girls advance to 4A sectional final