NAPPANEE — NorthWood’s Steve Neff has pulled dead even again with Scottsburg’s Donna Cheatham atop the all-time Indiana girls high school basketball coaching wins chart.
Now the idea is to move ahead for a while, not so much for his sake, but for that of his No. 3-rated Panthers, who will have the opportunity to put their coach alone in front when they face No. 11 Fort Wayne Concordia (17-6) in a Class 3A Bellmont Regional semifinal next Saturday, Feb. 16.
Host NorthWood staved off an upset bid by West Noble, pulling away late for a 48-33 victory over the Chargers in Saturday’s sectional championship at The Pit.
A few moments later, somebody whispered to Neff that Scottsburg and Cheatham had just lost. That left Neff at 634-174 in his 36th year and Cheatham at 634-203 to close out her 38th.
“It’s nice I got a chance to get ahead of her (next week),” Neff said with a shrug, “but I’m still planning on coaching one more year next year, and from what I’ve heard, she plans on going longer than me. But it’s really not about that. I’d rather talk about this right here.”
“This” was the Panthers’ second straight sectional title, their fourth in five years and their 23rd overall, each under Neff.
Junior Morgan Olson scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while senior co-captain Maddie Schwartz contributed a career-high nine points on 3-of-4 shooting outside the arc as NorthWood won its 16th straight game.
The Panthers (22-3) led just 36-29 midway through the fourth quarter after a 5-0 run by the Chargers, but Schwartz drained a trey from the left wing on a pass-out from Olson to restore the spread to double digits with 3:50 remaining.
West Noble (16-8) got as close as eight just once after that as NorthWood hit 9 of 12 free throws down the stretch.
“I’ve not really been a big shooter, but I knew I needed to step up for my team,” Schwartz said. “I just needed to be confident for my team.”
“I definitely have confidence in her,” said Olson, who assisted on two of Schwartz’s triples. “I know she can shoot it, and she knows she can shoot it.”
“We had a couple other girls off tonight with their shooting, but that’s what a team is about,” Neff said. “With Maddie, we’ve been working all year to get her to shot. It’s just catch and be comfortable shooting, and she’s really taken to it now. She’s got the confidence, and 90 percent of it is confidence.”
While usual Panther sharpshooter Jordyn Frantz had an off shooting night, the sophomore still dazzled all-around, contributing 10 points, nine rebounds and game highs of four assists, four steals and four blocked shots.
Senior Savannah Bley added seen points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals despite battling foul trouble.
Junior Kelsie Peterson paced the Chargers with 10 points and six assists, while senior Haley Richardson had nine points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
“I think we played a little bit not to lose,” Neff said. “We came out of the gate well (leading 16-6 after the opening quarter), but then we got a little inpatient, then Savannah went out and there was a little bit of, ‘Now what?’ We lost the mo, but you gotta give West Noble credit. I think they played one of the better games of the year, but then you gotta give our girls credit. When it was crunch time, they got it done.”
NorthWood led 27-10 by the midway point of the second quarter, but the Chargers closed to 29-16 before the half, then to 30-24 with three minutes left in the third period.
Olson’s putback basket as that quarter expired was the Panthers’ lone field goal of the quarter and put them up 34-24 entering the fourth.
“They did surprise us a little bit, but I’m so proud of our team for working through it,” Schwartz said. “We really wanted it and it’s just exciting just to be a part of this team.”
“We knew in the third quarter we needed to pick up our game and play better defense,” Olson said. “We knew there was a chance they could come back, but as the season’s gone on, we’ve picked up our defense and that’s been a key for us.”
As for Neff — who drew even with Cheatham for the first time ever for about 24 hours earlier this week based on the timing of the sectional games — he reiterated that his intention is to coach just one more season, but also acknowledged that it would be special to move in front at least temporarily on the wins list.
“I’m not going to chase her,” said Neff, who is retiring from teaching in two weeks. “I do want to get ahead of her, but I do plan on retiring after next year. I’d like to get out (at) No. 1. Hopefully, we’ll win next weekend and then be ahead of her for a year.”
The Concordia game will be a rematch of last year’s regional final that the Cadets won 53-40 on their way to ultimately capturing the 3A state title.
“We owe them something,” Neff said, “and it’s better than playing someone we don’t know. Our girls ought to fire up for them, and hopefully, we saved our best for next weekend.”
3A NorthWood Sectional
NorthWood 48, West Noble 33
West Noble — Haley Richardson 4-12 1-2 9, Paige Shearer 1-4 2-2 4, Kohdee Hicks 2-7 0-0 4, Ashley Shepherd 2-5 0-0 6, Kelsie Peterson 5-10 0-0 10, Taylor Fisher 0-0 0-0 0, Alexis Shepherd 0-3 0-0 0, Shawna Yougn 0-0 0-0 0, Darby Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Rebecca Schermerhorn 0-0 0-0 0, Brooke Lutton 0-0 0-0 0, Cara Groff 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 14-41 (.341) 3-4 (.750) 33.
NorthWood — Morgan Olson 9-18 2-4 20, Taylor Fielstra 0-5 0-0 0, Savannah Bley 2-6 3-4 7, Maddie Schwartz 3-5 0-0 9, Jordyn Frantz 2-10 5-7 10, Inger Yoder 0-0 0-0 0, Ashley Yoder 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Stutzman 0-0 2-2 2, Haley Roe 0-0 0-0 0, Tori Schwartz 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-44 (.364) 12-17 (.706) 48.
Scoring By Quarters
West Noble 6 10 8 9 — 33
NorthWood 16 13 5 14 — 48
3-point goals: West Noble (2-10) — Ashley Shepherd 2-5; NorthWood (4-12) — M.Schwartz 3-4, Frantz 1-7.
Rebounds: West Noble (23) — Richardson 7, Peterson 6; NorthWood (32) — Olson 10, Frantz 9, Bley 7.
Assists: West Noble (10) — Peterson 6; NorthWood (12) — Bley 4, Frantz 4.
Steals: West Noble (4) — Richardson 2; NorthWood (11) — Frantz 4, Bley 3.
Turnovers: West Noble 15, NorthWood 11.
Fouls: West Noble 14, NorthWood 10. Fouled out — none.
Officials: Brett Ratcliffe, John Bellamy, Chad Boldry.
Records: West Noble 16-8, NorthWood 22-3.
Next: NorthWood vs. FW Concordia Saturday, Feb. 16 in Class 3A Bellmont Regional first semifinal, 10 a.m.; championship at 8 p.m.