By Josh Sigler
Warsaw — Gang Green refuses to lose.
Backed by a 2,500-plus-person fan cheer section, Eastern High School’s girls basketball team earned its first berth into the state finals after a 74-55 thrashing of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers Saturday afternoon in the Class 2A North Semistate at Warsaw High School’s Tiger Den.
The Comets trailed for the first 1:42 of the contest, but surged ahead and never took their foot off the gas, building the lead up to as much as 20 points before the 19-point final differential.
“It’s huge. I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” senior Brittany Neeley said. “We’re going to go crazy [Saturday] night on the town. Greentown is going to be set on fire [Saturday] night if it wasn’t robbed while we were gone, because it seemed like the entire town was here.”
Eastern improved to 22-3 on the season, matching the 1999 squad for the most wins in a single season.
Those ’99 Comets bowed out at the semistate level. This time around, the will to win will carry the Comets to the Class 2A state finals next weekend in Terre Haute.
In the process, the Comets denied Luers its fourth straight trip to the 2A state finals.
“It was hard to play that movie forward to that point, but now it’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “These kids … they just put so much time into it and are so resilient. I just think they want to win really bad. They want to compete for that crowd and the support we had. It was a really neat day.”
Eastern’s mode of operation Saturday was similar to its Lapel Regional championship game victory.
The Comets pinched off Luers ability to score in the lane, forcing the Knights to win the game by hitting perimeter jump shots.
Luers was unable to do so. The Knights finished the afternoon 20 of 62 from the field, including a 5-for-25 mark from 3-point range.
Meanwhile, Eastern outrebounded Luers 53-32 for the game, never allowing the Knights to get their transition offensive ignited, taking away what had been a major staple for Luers in years past.
“We just didn’t play well in any facet, I don’t think,” Luers coach Denny Ranier said. “They took us out of our game, and that’s a credit to them.
“I knew the difference in the first half was rebounds and the free throws they shot. We just did a poor job, again.”
Luers drew first blood after gaining possession of the ball after the tipoff went out of bounds.
Five-foot-11 Freshman post player Tashayla Sutorius, Luers’ leading scorer entering Saturday, scored on a stickback and was fouled at the 7:34 mark of the opening stanza, giving Bethany Neeley, who was guarding Sutorius, a quick early foul. Sutorius’ freebie gave Luers a 3-0 lead.
Dexter opted to switch and put 6-foot sophomore Taylor Holliday on Sutorius in an attempt to prevent foul trouble, and Holliday put forth an outstanding defensive effort, holding Sutorius to eight points the rest of the way.
“It shows that all of our practice this week paid off because we really have been working on rebounding drills and gapping drives,” Holliday said. “We didn’t want to allow them to get into the paint, and we did a good job of keeping them out [Saturday].”
Dexter and Co. heaped praise on Holliday, who finished with six points and 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
“Taylor played her tail off in the post to hold Sutorius to 11 points,” Dexter said. “We cannot give Taylor enough credit. That won’t be in the boxscore or the stat book, but she played great defensively.”
The Comets owned the glass throughout, building a 28-14 advantage on the boards by the half, where they took a 29-20 advantage into the locker room on the scoreboard.
Luers (14-12) had one more charge left in it. Trailing 36-26 with 5:16 to play in the third, Erin Butler and Emma Wolfe hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to four at 36-32 with 4:24 to play in the third, but Eastern responded with a 10-4 run to stretch the lead back out to 10 at 46-36 before taking a 48-38 lead into the fourth quarter.
After Luers’ Addie Reimbold completed an old-fashioned three-point play to cut the Eastern lead to 48-41 with 7:02 to play, the Comets rattled off a 10-1 run to stretch the lead out to 58-42 with 5:30 to play in the game.
Luers poor shooting from the outside began to really take its toll down the stretch. Eastern grabbed long rebound after long rebound and feasted on the Knights’ poor transition defense, stretching the lead out to 74-54 in the final minute before Dexter cleared his bench to let reserve players also bask in the glory of a semistate championship.
“I hinted on Thursday that part of our gameplan was to get out in transition,” Dexter said. “We knew if we were able to get out in transition we were going to be tough to contain. First, you have to get the rebound and get a clean outlet. Early in the game, they tried to jam us up. We’d get the rebound and they’d send one or two players to scrape. If we got the ball out we knew we’d have four-on-two or five-on-three opportunities to shred them getting to the basket. That was one of the primary things on the board all week.”
Brittany Neeley put forth a performance for the ages Saturday afternoon, scoring 36 of her career-high 48 points in the second half while grabbing a game-high 20 rebounds. She was 19 of 21 from the charity stripe. Her final point tally tied a Howard County single-game record. Taylor’s Myndie Vaughn (Everling) scored 48 points in a game against Tipton during the 1994-95 season.
Bethany Neeley added 16 points and 12 rebounds in the victory.
Wolfe and Reimbold both scores 13 to lead Luers. Sutorius pulled down a team-high nine boards.
Luers entered Saturday shooting 41 percent from the field. The Knights shot 32 percent Saturday.
“We didn’t do anything special,” Bethany Neeley said. “We just went out there and played our defense. Our quote is ‘Defense lives here’ and we know offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”
Foul trouble plagued Luers. Three Knights fouled out (Reimbold, Allison Butler, Taya Andrews) as they committed 23 fouls as a team.
As a result, Eastern shot 32 free throws, connecting on 26 of them.