The evening before, on Friday, the Tipton Blue Devils shot the lights out in the opening quarter against Madison-Grant to come away with a victory.
Twenty-four hours later, in the Sectional 39 championship at Taylor High School, on Saturday, another strong shooting performance proved to be the difference in the final outcome.
Despite a remarkable game long effort from Eastbrook game long, especially in the second half after falling behind by double digits, they were unable to recover from their first half deficit in an eventual 57-48 loss, putting a bow on a tremendous season for Head Coach Jeff Liddick and the Panthers.
Eastbrook, trailing 38-25 at halftime, eventually trimmed their 13-point deficit to as little as seven in the fourth quarter, but Tipton point guard Ella Wolfe’s 15-point effort in the first half and Ashley Schram’s dominance in the post throughout the contest kept the Panthers at bay.
However, from the opening tip to the final whistle, the Panthers gave it their all.
“That’s a trademark of our program,” Liddick said. “That’s just in our culture. We never quit, no matter what the score is. We are going to continue to battle, and we are always going to play like we have a chance to win the game. The girls gave me everything they had until the last seconds, and I couldn’t be more proud of our group.”
The first eight minutes of the contest were even, with neither team leading by any more than four points. Kristin Goff, coming off her 10-point fourth quarter against Blackford, scored six in the first quarter against Tipton, but the Blue Devils took a 17-14 lead at the first quarter break.
In the second stanza, the Blue Devils grabbed control. Wolfe, after scoring five points in the first, did not miss in the second, shooting four-for-four from the field, including two makes from three-point range, to spark a 19-point quarter for Tipton. Schram, after scoring seven points in the opening stanza, scored six more before halftime to give the Blue Devils their 13-point cushion.
“When you are in that big of a hole against a team like Tipton, it’s tough to come back and win that type of game,” Liddick said.
Despite their deficit, Liddick encouraged them in the locker room to come back out in the second half and play their style of basketball, and that’s exactly what the Panthers did, battling with Tipton the rest of the way.
“That’s what I challenged them with at halftime,” Liddick said. “We can continue to do what we did in the second quarter and not play disciplined basketball and get ourselves in a deeper hole. Or, we can be disciplined on both ends of the court and claw our way out of this hole, which we did.”
Wolfe, after shooting six-for-seven in the first half, was held to just one point after halftime, as freshman Olivia Howell completely locked her up in the final two quarters.
“We talked to Liv at halftime, saying you have to make her go right. She doesn’t want to go right, she wants to come back to her left,” Liddick said. “We took away those dribble penetrations that she was getting in the first half.”
Eastbrook’s offense found success, too, as the team shot nine-of-18 in the second half, which included three-of-six from beyond the arc, outscoring the Blue Devils.
And after giving up 19 points in the second quarter, the Panthers held the Blue Devils to just 19 points in the final two quarters.
With the Panthers trailing by 15 in the third quarter, freshman Sophia Morrison scored five straight points, including a bucket at the buzzer, to cut Eastbrook’s deficit to 12 points.
Eastbrook then opened the fourth on a 9-4 run, making it a 54-47 Tipton lead with 1:25 to play, but that was as close as the Panthers were able to get.
Morrison led the Panthers with 14 points to cap off her stellar freshman season, while Goff scored 11 and added five rebounds. Rachel Manning, in her final high school contest, scored seven points, four in the fourth quarter.
While the Panthers will return most of their core next season, they will lose three key seniors.
Manning was a tenacious two-way player throughout her Eastbrook career, playing a significant part in the Panthers’ Sectional 39 championship a season ago. Lexi Binkerd settled into a new role this season, serving as a deep bench piece and a leader for a mostly young squad. And Gabby Scott, while seeing limited minutes, gave everything she had to the program throughout her high school career.
“Rachel has been a contributor for the past three seasons,” Liddick said. “She doesn’t know any effort other than 100 percent. Lexi has been an off-and-on starter for us since she’s been a freshman, and this year, accepted a new role,” Liddick said. “She came in tonight…and gave us all she had. And Gabby, while [she rarely played,] never missed an open gym, never missed a practice, never complained, and came in every day and made her teammates better. She’ll be deeply missed.”
Though the Panthers were unable to defend their Sectional 39 championship, the 2020-2021 campaign was one full of both triumphs and success. They won 15 games, their most since the 2015-2016 season, while also winning their first Grant Four championship in five years.
Most importantly, the Panthers, a group teeming with youth, significantly improved as the season progressed, playing the game of basketball with a maturity well beyond their years and setting the foundation for what could be many successful seasons in the near future for the Eastbrook girls basketball program.
“We talked about that in the locker room after the game, just thinking about how far we’ve come just since that first game against Blackhawk Christian until now,” Liddick said. “A lot of positive things with this group, and they play well beyond their years.The thing I like about that type of maturity is when you’re mature like that as a basketball player, it drives you to get better in the offseason.
“I guarantee with this group, I am not going to have to beg and plead to get a basketball in somebody’s hands from now until October. I know three or four right now that will be in somebody’s barn tomorrow shooting a basketball. They are going to be itching to get back into it and get better, and again, we should see a lot of positive growth next year with these kids.”