By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – No question about it, all the pressure rests on the back of Bedford North Lawrence, the seven-time defending sectional champion, as it prepares for another title battle.
The Stars (21-5) will collide with Jennings County (16-8) in the Sectional 15 championship at New Albany on Monday night, and BNL is the substantial favorite. After all, the Stars have won 16 straight games in the series with their conference rival. That includes a 62-45 victory over the Panthers on Nov. 27.
BNL accepts that. The Stars, with all the tradition and expectations, are accustomed to the spotlight, to the self-imposed forecasts of success. Pressure has become an added layer against the elements on a cold-blast night. It adds weight but keeps BNL warm.
Jeff Allen, now in his fifth season with the program, attempts to absorb as much of that heat as possible, deflecting it away from his players. “I’m a coach, I always feel the pressure,” he said, a laugh line with a lot of truth. But in this case, there’s no protection from the obvious.
The Panthers have won eight in a row, including back-to-back tournament victories over Floyd Central and New Albany, as momentum for the rematch. They’re in nothing-to-lose mode. BNL, which stated its goal of a deep tournament run many weeks ago, is in everything-to-lose position.
Can the Stars handle that? Definitely. They’ve already toppled co-Hoosier Hills Conference champion Jeffersonville and dangerous North Harrison to reach the final. They’re playing their best basketball at the perfect time.
“We went through a learning process this year,” Allen said. “We’re at a point now where we’re starting to put it all together. We want to keep playing, because I think we’ll continue to get better from this point. I’m excited about that.
“I’m happy for these girls. Eight in a row would be something special. It’s a tough sectional to win. From that standpoint, it’s been a lot of fun and I hope we can get it done on Monday night.”
Jennings might have endured a tougher tournament road than BNL. The Stars had to face the two best teams in their half of the bracket, but the Panthers – thanks to the postponement of the first round last week – will now play their third game in four days, the last two without any practice preparation.
The Panthers survived a late-game charge from New Albany in the second semifinal on Saturday. After blasting to a 21-5 lead, with New Albany ace Alayasia Douglas suffering an ankle injury, Jennings held on in the fourth quarter as Callie Wilder scored 17 points.
Wilder had 14 in the first encounter with the Stars, but 20 turnovers tormented the Panthers. Jorie Allen had 19 points and Chloe McKnight added 15 for the Stars.
“Everybody knows everybody well here, because we’re conference teams,” Allen said. “So it will come down to playing with a level of intensity, and executing, kids making plays. I like where we are right now, I like our chances.”
The new team talking point is “calm” as BNL looks to win its 28th sectional title in program history.
“We have to play the way we’ve been playing,” junior center Madison Webb said. “Stay calm, stay positive and play as a team.”
The winner will face No.8 Center Grove (22-3) in the first game of the regional at BNL on Saturday at 10 a.m. No.9 Bloomington South (21-3) will battle No.19 Castle (21-4) in the second game, with those winners meeting at 8 p.m. in the title clash.
CLASS 4A SECTIONAL 15
BNL vs. JENNINGS COUNTY
When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
Records: BNL 21-5; Jennings County 16-8
Sagarin ratings: BNL 91.97, Jennings County 72.82
Last meeting: On Nov. 27 at BNL Fieldhouse, the Stars conquered the Panthers 62-45. Jorie Allen had 19 points and Chloe McKnight added 15 for the Stars, while Callie Wilder had 14 for the Panthers. Jennings was guilty of 20 turnovers.
Game notes: Jennings County’s 8-game winning streak is its longest since a 10-game run during the 2007-08 season. The Panthers are seeking their first sectional title since 2005. BNL has won 16 straight games in the series.
Bedford NL Stars
F – Jorie Allen 6-1 Sr.
C – Madison Webb 6-2 Jr.
G – Chloe McKnight 5-8 So.
G – Jacy Hughes 5-5 Sr.
G – Gracie Crulo-Rood 5-5 Jr.
Jennings County Panthers
F – Lily Ernstes 5-8 Fr.
C – Callie Wilder 5-10 Sr.
G – Kylee Matern 5-5 Sr.
G – Addyson Kent 5-6 So.
G – Madi Skinner 5-5 Sr.