GAS CITY – Breann Barger went 0 for 4 from the free throw line in Norwell's sectional semifinal win on Friday night. She missed her first two foul shots in the Class 3A Mississinewa sectional final against Bellmont on Saturday, and then another in the fourth quarter.
So when she was awarded two more free throws with the Knights trailing by one point and just over two seconds left to play, even coach Eric Thornton admits he wasn't quite sure what to expect.
“I made eye contact with her as she went to the line, and I just said, 'Breathe,'” Thornton said. “I felt that it was important to lighten the moment just a little bit. That's so much pressure right there.”
So Norwell's lone senior, the only member of the team who had previously played in a sectional championship game, sank one shot to tie the game, and then calmly hit the next to put the Knights (21-4) up 37-36.
That gave Bellmont (18-8) just over two seconds to get the ball down the court and hit a potential winner.
“We were making sure not to let anyone get behind us so we couldn't see them,” Barger explained. “We were making sure that we didn't foul them, because of the bonus.”
The Knights knew Bellmont would try to get the ball to senior Meghan Busick, who had already scored 20 points, and that's exactly what happened. But she never got full control of the ball, and with both Barger and junior Lauren Bales on her she could not get off a proper shot.
And like that, the Knights, the No. 4 team in Class 3A, claimed their 14th sectional title and first since 2017 by the narrowest of margins.
Just as in their sectional opener against Bishop Luers, the Knights fell behind early on Saturday. Busick, who missed last year's sectional title game after tearing her ACL in the semifinal, scored the first eight points of the game.
But that eight-point lead would be the biggest of the contest for either team.
Early in the second quarter, Bales hit the first of her three 3-pointers to tie the game 10-10. Bellmont junior Lauren Bleke hit a 3-pointer from the corner to go ahead 19-13 going into halftime.
Late in the third quarter, Norwell junior Maiah Shelton powered to the basket for a layup that tied the game at 19, but Busick responded with a layup of her own to give Bellmont the 21-19 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. Bales hit two consecutive 3-pointers to give Norwell its first lead, 29-27, and Barger followed with her only bucket from the field in the fourth quarter.
Busick scored 10 of her game-high 20 points in the fourth quarter, and twice wrestled the lead from Norwell. But Barger was the senior who got the final word: with the seconds ticking off the clock, Shelton drove in for a layup and missed, junior Kaylee Fuelling got the rebound and also missed, and it was Barger who was fouled while going up for the Knights' third-chance shot.
“Bre has become this lone senior that kind of mothers over our team, deflects praise,” Thornton said. “I think she appreciates being in that spot in the game. I think it made sense for it to come down to Bre.”
Barger and Shelton each scored 11 points for the Knights.