By CARLA KNAPP
Pharos-Tribune sports editor
FULTON — Winamac girls basketball coach Jim Swaney knows his team is capable of better than what it showed Wednesday at Caston.
But to him, that’s why the 50-27 victory over the Lady Comets was so encouraging.
“Was this one of our better games? No,” said Swaney. “But we played well enough to win, and honestly, after a game like this, ... it will help us in practice because the kids know they didn’t play good defense.”
The Lady Warriors (13-7, 7-0 Midwest Conference) needed the win to clinch the conference title outright. And despite 19 turnovers, an 18-of-44 performance from the field and 17 fouls, they still earned their fourth straight outright championship.
“The first thing I’m happy about is the conference championship,” said Swaney, who noted that it was the team’s 32-straight conference win. “Back after the Manchester game when we lost, I put ‘7-0’ on the board and I asked them ‘Do you know what that means?’ And they got it done.”
But of the team’s seven MWC victories this season, this was certainly not the most memorable.
Steph Malott opened the game with a triple, but it was one of the few things that went right for Winamac in the opening 12 minutes of the game.
Caston (3-17, 1-6 MWC) maintained strong pressure on the Warriors and kept them off balance offensively through most of the opening half. But despite the Comets’ defensive success, their offense also remained fairly stagnant.
Jennifer Curtis hit a three late in the first quarter to cut Winamac’s seven-point lead down to 10-6, but the Warriors managed a few late buckets and went into the first break with a 14-6 advantage.
Despite the short offensive spurt, Winamac couldn’t carry that momentum into the second quarter and quickly stalled again.
Caston, however, seemed to have its offense going when Jessica Kantzer drilled one from long range to make it a seven-point game at 16-9. Kantzer led the Comets with 11 points on the night. She also pulled in eight rebounds that helped Caston put up some second-chance points.
Though the Comets gave up a few buckets early in the second stanza, they ultimately kept it close until Winamac finally found its perimeter game with just two minutes left in the half.
With just more than two minutes left in the half, Malott hit back-to-back triples to finish out her scoring for the night at nine points, and also prompt Caston coach Don King to call a timeout to slow the pace.
Still, the buckets sparked a late offensive spurt that took Winamac from a 20-9 lead to a 28-9 lead in just minutes. Kara Crawford, who finished with 12 points, then closed out the half with a pair of free throws and Winamac held a 30-11 lead at intermission.
“The game was at seven, then they went on a 10-0 run and that put us in a little hole,” said King. “We just kind of fell flat when that happened. I don’t have an explanation. We had been playing hard and rotating well, then all at once we weren’t.”
The large deficit didn’t deter the Comets, however, as they came out of the break and began to chip away at Winamac’s lead. With some strong play off the bench from Kaylyn Herrold, Caston closed the gap down to 35-20 at the end of the third quarter.
They had chances to close it even further in the fourth quarter, but costly misses on free throws closed the door on Caston’s comeback attempt. The Comets hit just 5-of-12 from the charity stripe in the final quarter.
Despite an obviously slow night for both offenses, both King and Swaney felt it was a good warm-up for upcoming tournament games. Winamac drew the bye in the Class 2A North Judson Sectional and won’t play again until Friday, Feb. 10. Caston will face South Newton on Saturday and again in the Class A North White Sectional on Tuesday.
“We’ve got a week and a half to get ready for the tournament,” said Swaney. “After this game, they’ll play better defense in the tournament. They’ll have to or they’ll be gone.”
By CARLA KNAPP