Against two-time defending champions Evansville Mater Dei, the girls basketball team was 39 seconds from a state championship in their first IHSAA finals appearance.
Mater Dei was ranked No. 2 in the state at the end of the season. Western wasn’t even in the top five.
“The little secret I knew was that these kids could do it,” Western Coach Chris Keisling said.
And there they were: Last Saturday night in Indiana State University’s Hulman Center, up 36-33 with less than a minute to play for the 3A state title.
For high school athletes, this is the highest level of competition. They just need one word to understand what’s on the line: State.
We’re going to State.
That year they won State.
Winning comes with rings and banners. Losing means a long bus ride back home wondering what went wrong.
“It’s something we’ve been working toward since fifth grade,” Western’s senior guard Kiersten Durbin said.
Before the game started, a song played through the loudspeakers, “I had a dream so big and loud. I jumped so high I touched the clouds ... This is gonna be the best day of my li-i-ife.”
As the announcer read the names of the Mater Dei starting lineup before tipoff, the Western players held hands, their knees shaking.
Mater Dei, led by 6-foot senior guard and IU commit Maura Muensterman, was slowed by Western’s 2-3 zone defense, something the Wildcats hadn’t seen much of all season. By halftime, the score was tied at 21.
In the second half, it was an even match. Western was up by two, then Mater Dei was up by one, then Western by one. But the Panthers’ strong defense worked, holding Mater Dei to 35 points, their lowest all season.
The fans were as loud as a full Assembly Hall when their team pulled ahead. Most of Russiaville, Ind., — home to Western, population 1,096 — seemed to show up for the match. Both sides spat vitriolic protests at officials when a call didn’t go their way.
As the final buzzer rang with Western ahead 38-35, players on both teams had tears in their eyes.
In a press conference after the game, Mater Dei Coach Steve Goans answered questions softly, his eyes down.
“Maybe we didn’t move the ball the way we should’ve,” he said.
Cheers echoed into the room from across the hall, where the Panthers carried the IHSAA trophy into their locker room.
Leading scorer Carley O’Neal said she’d be screaming out the window the whole way back to Russiaville before a 1 a.m. pep rally at the school. She’d yell at cornfields, trees, passing cars. Her teammates know she celebrates that way after every game, but this one is just different.
“It’s probably going to be a late night,” Keisling said. “Probably will be late to church tomorrow morning.”
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