By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – From the best of starts to the worst of conclusions, Bedford North Lawrence fell from the tower heights to the Castle moat of misery.
Castle, unfazed by an early double-digit deficit, scrambled back to win its first Class 4A regional championship in 13 years on Saturday night, digging out an intense 54-48 victory over the Stars in a dogged duel of worthy titleists. Jessica Nunge scored 14 points as the Knights advanced to the one-game semistate on Feb. 16.
The IHSAA announced the site of Castle’s clash with No.10 Lawrence North (a 60-46 winner over Ben Davis) late Saturday night, settting that Final Four collision in Jeffersonville. BNL’s destiny is already determined. It is finished.
The Stars (23-6) could not exact revenge for a regular-season home loss to the Knights (23-4). They could not maintain the momentum of a glorious opening surge, they could not convert in the key moments of a nervous fourth quarter. Those faults, in such a high-level, all-or-nothing battle, were magnified.
Castle had balance (three in double figures and a fourth with 9) while BNL had only three score and counted on its two interior stars to carry them one more time. Jorie Allen had 23 points in her final game, while Madison Webb added 19. But the Knights clamped down on everyone else and ripped the regional title away.
“Disappointing, but I’m proud of my kids,” BNL coach Jeff Allen. “We made mistakes we hadn’t typically made over the last few weeks. Whether it was fatigue or defensive pressure, but that was the difference in the ballgame.
“We made mistakes at critical times, missed some shots we should have made. In a big game like this, it all adds up, against somebody good like that.”
BNL was sensational during the early stages, riding the emotions of revenge and resolve to a 14-3 breakout. Everything was perfect as Chloe McKnight buried a 3-pointer, Webb powered inside for three baskets, and Allen slashed to a 3-point play.
Castle shook that off, like soft snow off an overcoat.
“We told them we knew they would come out like that,” Castle coach Bob Meier said. “This is their home crowd, their home gym, they had emotion on their side. We had to talk them through it. It was like, if we can’t make that up in 24 minutes, we don’t need to be here anyway.
“Slow down a little bit, think about what we’re doing, be better than we’ve been.”
Castle made it up in much less time. The Stars were guilty of 5 second-quarter turnovers, and the Knights charged, with reserve Carly Harpenau hitting two treys to force a 23-23 deadlock at intermission.
The fight was on, and they exchanged a lot of blows after that. Castle forged a 32-27 advantage as freshman Natalie Niehaus went coast-to-coast with a rebound, but the Stars answered with Allen’s lane drive and Webb’s 3-point play. After Allen scored from point-blank range off a Jacy Hughes lob, Castle took a 41-40 lead into the final frame on Paige Hopkins’ corner trey.
Who? Hopkins, a little-used senior on the bench, had scored only 38 points in limited duty all year and had not made a 3-pointer. She picked quite a moment for her first. That was the first clue of Castle’s future.
“Paige Hopkins, God bless her, she’s a cheerleader on the bench,” Meier said. “That’s just the team player we need.”
The next clue was BNL’s scoring drought. After Webb started the fourth with a sweeping drive across lane, the Stars didn’t score again until the 2:05 mark. They trailed 47-44 at that point, then missed two open-look treys to draw even. Castle clinched the title at the foul line, fending off BNL’s desperation with five points from the line in the final 33 seconds.
“They just scraped,” Meier said. “I’m so proud of them. They just compete. It’s not pretty sometimes, and it wasn’t pretty out there, but we’ll take it.
“The girls last year set a great bar (Castle went 23-1 and lost to Center Grove in the regional semifinal) for them. We started thinking people would overlook us, but we just had to hang in there and believe.”
Niehaus totaled 11 points, Harpenau added 10, and Hannah Hood added 9 for Castle, which won its first regional crown since 2006.
BNl will look back at the second quarter as an omen, at the rushed decisions and hasty shots early in the fourth, as its downfall.
“They make it difficult,” Allen said. “But we had key turnovers at certain times, key misses at certain times when we needed a basket and just didn’t get it. In a tight game like that, every possession counts and we had too many.
“We had a series (in the second quarter) where we missed three layups in a row. What can you say about that? The kids were trying. When you see that happen, it’s just not your night. That symbolizes you might have a tough night the rest of the way. And we did.
“We played hard. We came out and played well early. You just have to give them credit.”
Allen, who will wait now on her All-Star future and Miss Basketball candidacy, was a warrior while hitting 10-of-17 shots. Webb was 7-for-7 at the line and grabbed 8 rebounds. But McKnight was the only other scorer with two first-half treys.
BNL’s bid for a 13th regional title came up a few shots short. The tears following the outcome were the realization of finality and what could have been, of a goal that was not reached.
“We’ve had a great year,” Allen said. “Sure, I’m disappointed. I just coached the last game with my daughter (who leaves as the top scorer in program history) I’m ever going to coach, and those other five seniors. I would have liked to have played next weekend.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t get it done.”
BEDFORD NL STARS (48)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
33 Jorie Allen, f 0-0 10-17 3-5 6 3 23
32 Madison Webb, c 0-0 6-10 7-7 8 1 19
11 Chloe McKnight, g 2-5 2-6 0-0 2 3 6
12 Jacy Hughes, g 0-2 0-2 0-0 1 4 0
24 Gracie Crulo-Rood, g 0-0 0-1 0-1 0 2 0
2 Irye Gomez 0-2 0-2 0-0 1 3 0
22 Allie Fugate 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
3 Sylvia Woods 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
30 Katie Fisher 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
21 Abby Riley 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Totals 2-8 18-38 10-12 21 16 48
CASTLE KNIGHTS (54)
3s FGs FTs R F Pts
30 Jessica Nunge, f 0-1 7-12 0-2 7 3 14
32 Natalie Niehaus, g 0-0 3-5 5-6 4 4 11
22 Hannah Hood, g 1-4 3-7 2-3 3 2 9
40 McKenna Tutt, g 0-0 1-1 0-0 0 0 2
42 Josie Freeman, g 0-2 1-5 3-4 2 4 3
11 Carly Harpenau 2-5 2-5 4-7 5 1 10
21 Kial Mitchell 0-1 0-1 0-0 0 1 0
12 Mikele Niehaus 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
25 Paige Hopkins 1-1 1-1 0-0 0 0 3
Totals 4-13 18-38 14-22 24 15 54
Bedford NL 16 7 17 8 – 48
Castle 9 14 18 13 – 54
Turnovers – BNL 11, Castle 11
Field goal percentage – BNL 18-38 (.473), Castle 18-38 (.473)
Free throw percentage – BNL 10-12 (.833), Castle 14-22 (.636)