By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Home is where the trophy is, and there’s no place like BNL Fieldhouse as Bedford North Lawrence prepares to defend its Class 4A regional championship. Two heel clicks during a whirlwind day for a title.
The Stars, surging toward peak performance at the perfect time, will grace Damon Bailey Court on Saturday morning in the opening game of the state tournament’s second stage, facing No.8 Center Grove in a rematch of last year’s epic championship battle.
After BNL (22-5) and Center Grove (22-3) clash at 10 a.m., No.9 Bloomington South (21-3) will collide with Castle (21-4) in the second semifinal. Those two survivors will return for the final at 7:30 p.m.
BNL has played its best basketball during this postseason push, dominating the sectional at New Albany while winning three games (against opponents that had 47 combined wins) by an average of 17.7 points. Preaching patience and calmness, BNL coach Jeff Allen believes his team is poised to climb even higher.
The reason for his optimism and excitement is directly linked to BNL’s recent ability to showcase its interior power. Jorie Allen, the Indiana University recruit and Miss Basketball candidate, and Madison Webb have been the focal point. The results have been obvious.
“I think the kids have bought into that,” Allen said. “They understand. We shoot a higher percentage if we’re getting a touch inside and a reversal. Those shots are going in. That’s the type of offense we want, where we’re dictating the terms and not taking what the defense forces us into. That’s made a difference in this basketball team.”
Allen (18.9 points, 7.9 rebounds) and Webb (8.7 points, 7.0 rebounds after averaging in double figures during the sectional) give BNL a powerful post attack. That opens up perimeter gaps for Chloe McKnight (9.5) and Jacy Hughes (7.3), and makes the Stars extremely dangerous and difficult to defend.
“With Jorie down low, and Webb, that will be a difficult match-up problem for us – like they both have been for everybody,” Center Grove coach Kevin Stuckmeyer said. “They have shooters around the outside. They’re super fundamentally sound, they don’t beat themselves. You have to come out and beat them, take them out of what they do well.”
If any team is equipped and built to do that, Center Grove certainly is. The Trojans, one of the state’s top defensive teams, allow only 38 points per game, and nobody has hit 60 on them this season. Only five teams got into the 50s.
That style worked well as the Trojans went on an 18-game winning streak, ended by Lawrence North in the regular-season finale. Center Grove bounced back with impressive victories over Martinsville, Whiteland and Franklin in the sectional.
“Our girls have been consistent,” Stuckmeyer said. “They bought into the defensive philosophy and worked hard to make other teams earn it.
“We’ve not done anything special or spectacular, we’ve just given ourselves chances in every game. Their togetherness has been pretty special. You usually have a good year when the girls have good chemistry.”
Center Grove features the backcourt experience of Ella Thompson (13.4 points), Emma Utterback (12.6) and sophomore newcomer Mary Wilson (9.9). The contrast of styles – compared to BNL’s paint power – will create an explosive battle.
“They’re really solid defensively,” Allen said. “They get out in passing lanes, they put pressure on the ball and don’t let you make the entry pass. That’s good coaching and kids playing with a high level of effort.
“We’ll have to be really good in our halfcourt sets, be patient and not settle for whatever shot comes along. We have to execute.”
This rematch will have to hustle to match last year’s tremendous tournament bout. The Stars escaped with a thrillling 46-44 win when McKenzie Messmore hit a last-second shot from the lane, sending BNL dancing into the semistate and sending Center Grove home with the bitter memories of a jilted wallflower.
Picking a favorite among these four is almost impossible. The Sagarin computer power ratings favor Center Grove, but the Trojans have never won in BNL Fieldhouse. Whoever wins the opener will find another difficult challenge in the championship.
“I think it will be an outstanding regional,” Allen said. “It will come down to kids making plays, which is what is great about the state tournament. That’s the fun part.
“We know each other well, there will be adjustments, but it comes down to high school kids making plays. Everybody is really good and you have to play well the whole game.”
Center Grove is chasing its first regional title since 2007. The Trojans, motivated by revenge for the tears they shed last season, beat BNL during the 2015-16 regular season but are 0-2 against the Stars in the postseason.
“It will take a little more,” Stuckmeyer said. “With the field we have this year, all the teams have 20-plus wins, to come out of the regional here you know you’ve earned it. That would be a big accomplishment.”
The champion will advance to the one-game semistate, at either Jasper or Jeffersonville, to meet the regional champion from Decatur Central on Feb. 16. The IHSAA will announce all the semistate sites on Sunday.
CLASS 4A REGIONAL
CENTER GROVE at BNL
When: Saturday, 10 a.m.
Records: Center Grove 22-3, ranked No.8; BNL 22-5
Sagarin ratings: Center Grove 94.94; BNL 92.76
Last meeting: Last season, the Stars won the regional title at Columbus with a thrilling 46-44 victory over Center Grove. Jorie Allen scored 15 points and McKenzie Messmore hit a last-second shot to power BNL to its 12th regional title. Cassidy Hardin scored 14 points for the Trojans.
Game notes: Center Grove has won four regional titles in program history, the last in 2007. BNL is 2-0 against the Trojans in postseason play. The Stars also conquered Center Grove 60-44 in the 2015 regional semifinal at BNL.
Center Grove Trojans
F – Emily Rake 5-8 Jr.
F – Kylie Storm 5-10 Sr.
G – Mary Wilson 5-10 So.
G – Emma Utterback 5-8 Sr.
G – Ella Thompson 5-7 Sr.
Bedford NL Stars
F – Jorie Allen 6-1 Sr.
C – Madison Webb 6-2 Jr.
G – Chloe McKnight 5-8 So.
G – Jacy Hughes 5-7 Sr.
G – Gracie Crulo-Rood 5-5 Jr.