Coming off of their remarkable Sectional 39 championship run, Jeff Liddick and the Eastbrook Lady Panthers knew they would have a fight on their hands against longtime conference rival Frankton in the Class 2A Regional 10 semifinal on Saturday morning.
The Eagles, much like Eastbrook, are a tough, defensive-minded team, and when playing at home, they are tough to beat.
In what would be their final game of the 2019-2020 campaign, the Panthers, as they have all season, gave their all, leaving everything out on the floor of the Frankton gym.
But in the end, a plethora of turnovers, combined with the shooting struggles that have plagued them all season, proved to be the difference as the Panthers’ were eliminated from the 2A playoffs with a 41-22 loss.
For the game, the Panthers coughed the ball up 20 times compared to Frankton’s nine, and more often than not, the Eagles made them pay on the other end.
Furthermore, the Eagles allowed just eight points in the second half – and zero points in the fourth quarter.
“We knew that we were going to have to take care of the ball, and any possession we got, we were going to have to take full advantage of that,” Liddick said. “I think we were trying to be a little too quick. We were trying to play a little faster than we can play, and you have to attribute that to their defense. They get up in your face, they pressure you, and they get after it.”
Eastbrook shot just nine-of-29 from the floor for the contest, making just three field goals after halftime.
Both defenses came to play early, as the two teams combined for just seven points in the first eight minutes. Frankton’s Chloee Thomas scored the first basket of the game, before Eastbrook’s Kristin Goff knocked down the Panthers’ only field goal, a three, to give them a 3-2 lead.
While the Panthers’ defense stymied the Frankton attack, their turnovers issues began early, stifling their offense in the process. Eastbrook turned the ball over seven times, and their final one of the quarter led to another Thomas field goal, giving the Eagles a 4-3 edge.
The scoring picked up in the second quarter. Johwen McKim’s first field goal and a converted and-one from Sehdah McKim briefly helped Eastbrook take the lead back, but shortly thereafter, the Eagles regained the advantage for good.
Two made free throws put the Eagles ahead 9-8, and Lauryn Bates, who scored seven of her 12 points in the second quarter, hit a three to put Frankton up by four. A jumper from Brianna Stepp at the 4:14 mark cut the Eagles’ advantage to two, but that was as close as the Panthers would get the rest of the way.
Frankton eventually built their lead to eight points, as an Ava Gardner three off an Eastbrook turnover at the buzzer put the Eagles up 22-14 at the halftime break.
“We were trying to make the next pass before catching the pass that was coming to us,” Liddick said. “A lot of our turnovers were just unforced errors. What got us in trouble was not being able to take care of the ball on the offensive end, [and we also] missed a lot of shots in the paint. We just didn’t convert shots there.”
At this point, the Eagles turned up the defensive pressure. From the end of the third quarter until the 5:45 mark of the fourth, the Eagles recorded a 10-0 run, which increased their lead to 12.
All three of Eastbrook’s remaining field goals came in the third, and Rachel Manning’s basket at the end of the frame would prove to be the last for the Panthers.
Frankton closed out the game with authority, outscoring the Panthers 11-0 in the final frame to advance the Class 2A Regional 10 championship game later in the evening.
Along with Bates’ 12 points, Gardner finished with seven for the Eagles. Johwen McKim led the Panthers with eight, while Goff ended the game with five.
Despite the loss, Liddick could not help but be proud of his team, particularly with their play on the defensive end of the floor. Frankton came into the game averaging over 50 points a game, and the Panthers held them to just 13 made field goals.
“Looking at the scoreboard, until we fouled at the end to get our subs in, we held them to 14 points before their average [at that point,]” Liddick said. “On the defensive end, even with the shots that they hit and the lead that they had, I thought our girls did an amazing job. They are used to scoring 53 a game, and they were sitting there with 39. We knew that we needed to hold them under 40 to have a chance to win, and we did. Our girls accomplished it. That’s a great offensive basketball team.”
And while the season ended earlier than desired, the Panthers can head into the offseason with their heads held high.
This group dealt with adversity from the beginning, but overcame each hurdle and capped it off with the program’s second sectional championship in the last four years.
“You can’t fault the girls’ effort,” Liddick said. “It was amazing. I’m so proud of them and what they’ve accomplished in the latter part of the season. The way they’ve been playing is something I knew they were capable of doing. They finally put a stretch together that allowed for a lot of success, and it’s something that we definitely want to use as a foundation going into next year.”
Stepp, Shauna Singer, and Lillian Moore each played in their final game in an Eastbrook on Saturday morning, and there is no question that all three left an undeniable mark on the program. Singer was the one of the team’s best rebounders, and a strong defender to boot. Stepp provided energy off the bench on both ends and accomplished whatever was required of her, unhesitatingly . And while Moore did not play much, she was a consummate teammate, providing constant encouragement from the bench and lifting her teammates up regularly.
“They are great kids and great teammates,” Liddick said. “They were girls that came in every day and gave us everything they had. All three would be the first to admit that…they wouldn’t consider themselves to be basketball players, but what they did for our program, they were basketball players. They set an example with their effort. They set an example with the way they treated other teammates, and we are going to miss them dearly. They are going to do great things.”
While this year may be over, the future is bright for the Eastbrook Lady Panthers’ basketball program. With a host of talented eighth graders ready to make the jump to varsity basketball next year, combined with a strong core of players set to return, this season could be the start of something special on the east side of Grant County.
“Going into next year, if they want to compete for a regional championship, or a sectional championship for that matter, they are going to have to invest some time,” Liddick said. “You could tell [Coach Hamaker’s] girls play the game more than just October to February – they invested in the offseason. That’s something that our girls are definitely going to have to do. We have some girls that are going to help us tremendously…[but] hopefully what we have accomplished here in the latter half of the season will help with that.”