Going into Saturday’s semistate game, the Pioneer Lady Panthers had defeated their previous five tournament opponents by an average of 27 ppg.
But they had to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit to get past Northfield and get back to the state championship game.
The Panthers outscored the Norse 26-7 in the decisive fourth quarter to roar past the Norse 70-54 in the Class A northern semistate game at the Berry Bowl.
No. 7 Pioneer (24-4) gets a rematch with No. 4 Loogootee (20-4) in the state title game, which will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. After the semistate results, both teams will be competing in Class 2A the next two seasons. No. 13 Northfield finishes 21-6.
Once the Norse shook off some nerves early, they started going to work against the Panthers’ vaunted zone defenses. They erased a 9-2 deficit to take a 14-11 lead after one quarter.
They extended their lead to 28-16 three minutes into the second quarter and for the first time during the Panthers’ tournament run, it looked like they were in trouble.
But the Panthers ended the half with an 11-4 run of their own to pull to within 32-27 at halftime.
The Panthers’ extended 2-3 zone and 3-2 zone had helped them dominate their previous tournament opponents. But they weren’t as effective against the sharp-shooting Norse, who were also able to match their athleticism a bit.
But Pioneer coach Jeff Brooke had an ace in the hole as he went to his man-to-man defense after the early deficit.
“We were leaving No. 22 [Emma Hoover] open too much in our 33 and our 32. I think we had to go man and when we did, they only scored two buckets off of that,” Brooke said of the end of the first half. “We talked at halftime, ‘What do you want to do girls?’ And they said, ‘We’re going to dig in, Coach, and we want to go man.’ And obviously they did a great job recognizing the shooters.”
The battle continued in the third quarter and the Panthers kept surging. They tied the game at 43-all on a basket by Ashlynn Brooke with 1:50 left in the quarter. But the Norse ended the frame with a 4-1 run to take a 47-44 lead after three.
The fourth quarter was all Pioneer. Olivia Brooke’s putback basket gave them a 48-47 lead with 7:30 remaining, their first lead since the first quarter and one they would never relinquish.
Mackenzie Walker hit two free throws in the one-and-bonus to make it 52-48 with 6:11 left that started a 12-0 run.
Hailey Cripe’s basket made it 62-48 with 2:50 left as the Panthers were able to win going away.
Cripe finished with 22 points and four assists for the Panthers. Olivia Brooke had a double-double of 19 points and 13 rebounds. Ashlynn Brooke scored 11 points in 16 minutes. Madison Blickenstaff had 10 points, seven boards and three blocked shots. Walker added five points and Brooklyn Borges chipped in three.
Olivia Brooke scored 18 of her 19 points in the second half, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
“We don’t give her enough credit sometimes that she’s only 5-9, 5-10 but plays 6-1 when she’s in there,” coach Brooke said. “She did a great job coming out and doing what your seniors should do when you have 16 minutes possibly of your career to go. She did excellent.”
Known more for her volleyball prowess, Olivia Brooke showed that she has some moves in basketball as well. Cripe said she wasn’t surprised, especially when the Norse had to go to man-to-man defense once they fell behind.
“I knew she was going to come along. She just needed that one-on-one and when they went man-to-man, Olivia in man-to-man, I’m sorry, she’s going to win every time,” Cripe said. “At practice when we have drills that are one-on-one, she’s the player that no one wants to guard.”
Blickenstaff scored all 10 of her points in the first half to keep the Panthers in it.
“She had that spark, no doubt about it,” coach Brooke said. “We love our bigs inside and she did a great job. I think it was the combination of both of them tonight, one in the first half and one in the second did an excellent job for us.”
It also helps to have a future D-I player coming off the bench. The Panthers outscored the Norse 38-29 when Ashlynn Brooke was on the court, including 36-17 in the final three quarters.
Ashlynn said her team never flinched even though they were down 12 midway through the second quarter.
“We’re never out of it even though it may seem like we’re out of it. We keep going,” she said. “We got in our 42 press. Our defense got us back into the game by being aggressive, getting steals, boxing out and rebounding. We couldn’t get any of the boards that first half and we came out and started rebounding.
“It was tough at the beginning. We didn’t expect them to hit all their shots. That second quarter they came out and competed. Halftime, Coach was like, ‘We’re still in this, we’ve just got to box out and rebound.’ Rebounding was the main thing there. We came out and rebounded and it was history from there.”
Cripe was once again a leader on both ends of the court.
“Hailey Cripe is Miss Consistency. She does a great job leading this team both offensively and defensively,” coach Brooke said. “I couldn’t ask for a better point guard.”
Hoover had 13 points and five assists for Northfield. Kearston Stout scored 12 points, and Addi Baker had 11 points and eight boards.
“I knew it was going to be a good game because we’ve been watching film,” Cripe said. “We had a weird week, no practice Monday, Tuesday, came back Wednesday had a practice. Everything was a little bit different. It was weird. I was like, we’re just going to go out and have fun. We’ve had an extra two days off, we’re rested, let’s just go out and do it. It was a hard game, but I’m glad that we got to play them, see some competition before we went to state.
“I’m super excited to be playing Loogootee. Last year as soon as we lost that game, they said we would be two of the top contending teams next year for 1A again. To be back there, both of us again, it’s just going to be fun and I’m ready for it. State week is always different in basketball, it’s a different feeling and I’m ready for it.”
The Panthers outlasted the Norse in what was a fast-paced, rugged, physical contest.
“That just shows grit,” coach Brooke said. “People don’t just come to watch them play, they come to watch them because they work so hard and I think you saw that in the second half. They worked and worked and worked, persevered and followed through.”