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PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL: NorthWood finds Fairfield in rematch for sectional title

Feb. 2—LIGONIER — It'll be a rematch Saturday night at West Noble High School following Friday's IHSAA 3A Sectional 20.

NorthWood turned on cruise control in the second half to slide past West Noble, while Fairfield exerted patience in some late drama down the stretch in the win over Wawasee.

Saturday's game will bring both Elkhart County teams together for what will be the second meeting this season following a NorthWood 15-point win in the early half of the season.

NORTHWOOD 46, WEST NOBLE 23

NorthWood, coming in with a 1-3 record in its last four contests, took hold of the opening game Friday night on the way to an easy win over West Noble.

Junior forward Claire Payne, four feet taller than the tallest Charger, was the focus of the home team's defense. When the Panthers found their scoring leader inside, she was greeted by a collapsing defense each time, a credit to the strength she brings to the visitors.

Playing into that, NorthWood (18-6) attacked the West Noble 2-3 zone defense by spraying shots from behind the arc. In the first half, the Panthers were 3-of-15 from deep and 6-of-28 from the floor. Holding a 17-5 lead and forcing 11 first-half West Noble turnovers, the Panthers were still in firm control.

"It's been a long week of practice so it took a while to settle in," NorthWood head coach Taylor Burkhart said. "Once we calmed down a little bit, we started making better decisions and started to find some people for some open shots and strong drives to the basket."

Also adding that the Panthers' defense was the catalyst of a 20-point third quarter to extend the lead to 37-18, he said the changes at halftime helped give Payne a better look.

"We switched up our zone defense just a little bit on the cutting and we've been stressing to Claire that yeah, she is going to be a focus point on any team that we play," Burkhart said of his junior who scored 13 of her team-high 18 points in the third quarter. "She did a nice job of being strong and getting the ball and looking at different options at who would be open."

Payne found her stride in the quarter but was countered by the Chargers' Alexia Mast who scored eight in the frame. Shrinking the lead to 10, West Noble found themselves at NorthWood's fury, watching the Panthers score seven straight and doubling their lead to the finish line.

Payne's 18 points led the team followed by Haylee Heflin (9), Megan Yoder (7), Kinzee Hartman (6), Callie Johnson (3), Ella Branham (2) and Addison Davis (2).

Mast led the scoring column for the Chargers with 12 points. She was trailed by Marley Mast (3), JaLynn Baker (3), Alayna DeLong (3) and Allison Recendiz (2).

Before Fairfield and Wawasee took the court for the following game, Burkhart expressed his comments on the potential Saturday matchup.

"The good thing is we've played both teams so we know a little bit of what we're getting into and their tendencies," Burkhart said. "We're excited to be playing for the sectional championship and how we got to this point."

FAIRFIELD 40, WAWASEE 34

Fairfield (22-3) held on tight in the closing minutes Friday night at West Noble High School, salvaging a 40-34 win over Wawasee (14-10) and advancing to Saturday's championship against NorthWood.

The Falcons didn't do it without a fight from their opponent.

Up 28-19 entering the fourth quarter, Fairfield built its largest lead of the night at 33-19. Then, Wawasee locked down the Falcons guards.

Steal after steal, layup after layup, Wawasee inched closer with each turnover and score. After Lucy Wilkinson sunk another open shot at the rim, the Warrior fans got loud, now down 33-29 with over two and a half minutes to play.

Fairfield's Kaylee Dillion struck next, fading away towards the baseline and kissing a layup off the glass and in. Wawasee senior Kaydence Shepherd answer with a jumper from the right elbow, still down four with 1:46 left on the clock.

Empty possessions followed until Dillion and freshman Madison Jones went perfect at the line down the stretch, leading to a 40-34 victory over a pesky Wawasee group.

"If we just clean up those turnovers at the end... they probably have six or eight points off of steals and wide-open layups," Fairfield head coach Kyle Hartman said following the sectional championship appearance in his first year at the helm. "We went 10-for-13 at the free throw line [in the second half] so that wins you the basketball game right there."

Wawasee didn't get the same opportunities, going just 2-of-2 at the charity stripe.

Fairfield's defense was the reason why.

"Second half we did a better job of attacking the basket but their length is tough to get around," Wawasee head coach Derek Gilreath said. "They do a great job of not fouling when driving in there."

Gilreath was still proud of his group played down the stretch. Wawasee outscored Fairfield in the first, third and fourth quarters. It was the second one that did his team in.

"I felt we were getting a lot of open looks but we shot as poorly as you could shoot against the zone," Gilreath said about his team's job in the second half where they were outscored 13-2 on 1-of-11 shooting including a 0-of-9 mark from distance.

Fairfield ended the first half with nine-straight stops leaving Hartman to conclude that it "fueled us going into halftime."

Wawasee didn't turn the ball over in the second half, helping the Warriors cause down the stretch.

It was the freshman Jones who stayed hot for the Falcons, scoring 15 to lead the way. She was followed by Dillion (10), Eva Herbert (6), Macy Worthman (5), Zoie Miller (2) and Jayslynn Hall (2). The Falcons shot 13-of-30 from the floor and ended 13-of-21 at the foul stripe.

"The girls, a lot of credit to them, they really executed well," Hartman said on his team's patience when the game drew near in the closing quarter. "They followed the game plan of screening and slipping. Even when [Wawasee] got blocks and missed shots they still executed it well."

Wilkinson was the leading scorer for the Warriors, scoring 10 — seven in the second half. Following behind was Shepherd (7), Ava Couture (6), Mackenzie Hackleman (5), Molly Beer (4), and Olivia Horn (2). Wawasee finished 13-of-43 from the floor and were just 4-of-20 from behind the arc.

"I've never been as proud of them as I was the effort that they gave in the second half," Gilreath said. "Being down 12 to the defending state champions... we had zero turnovers the second half... our defensive intensity was fantastic. I couldn't be prouder of those girls."

On facing NorthWood again after falling 36-21 in Nappanee, Hartman seemed ready for the chance to seek revenge and a fourth consecutive sectional title.

"It's exciting, [we'll] celebrate tonight but NorthWood's a good team, we played them once and it didn't really go well for us," the coach said. "We'll watch their film from tonight. I'm excited."

The championship match is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at West Noble High School in Ligonier. The winner will go on to play the New Prairie Sectional 19 winner on Feb. 10.

PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL

NorthWood 46, West Noble 23

NorthWood 11 6 20 9 — 46

West Noble 5 0 13 5 — 23

Fairfield 40, Wawasee 34

Fairfield 10 2 7 15 — 40

Wawasee 9 13 6 12 — 34

Reach Matt Lucas at 574-533-2151, ext. 240325, or at matt.lucas@goshennews.com.