NAPPANEE — First, Jordyn Frantz treated her back. Then, when it mattered most, she broke Whitko’s.
Along the way, she and the rest of the NorthWood Panthers also made sure they had Steve Neff’s back.
The Panthers sent their legendary coach out with a victory in his final game at his longtime stomping grounds, The Pit, defeating Whitko 56-47 in the Class 3A NorthWood Sectional girls basketball championship Saturday, Feb. 15.
"I think everybody wanted to win it for Coach Neff," said Frantz, who hit 10-of-10 free throws in the fourth quarter to dash the pesky Wildcats’ hopes of a rally. "We wanted to send him out with a win, and we played our hardest to try to make sure of that."
"Nah, I crack all the time," said Neff, addressing that his voice seemed to crack as he answered a question about his Pit finale, good for his 24th sectional title in his 37 years as NorthWood’s coach. "I’m getting old."
The all-time leader in Indiana girls victories, Neff not only improved to 653-180, but a little earlier in the day, he was assured that he would retire as the leader when second-place Donna Cheatham's Scottsburg team was eliminated. Cheatham is 649-209 in 39 years.
Neff acknowledged that leaving as No. 1 matters to him.
"No. 1 and No. 2 goal (are) done, so everything else is going to be icing on the cake," Neff said. "The lady chasing me got beat today and we won the sectional, so that was No. 1 and No. 2. She has said she's going to coach until she passes me. I don't even care about that. I just wanted to go out on top."
He and his No. 11-ranked Panthers (19-5) are going on to next Saturday's Bellmont Regional. In search of their first regional crown in nine years, they'll face No. 12 Norwell (19-4) in the second semifinal, following the 10 a.m. semi between No. 3 Garrett (23-0) and Muncie Central (17-5). Survivors return at 8 p.m. for the final.
Whitko finished 16-7, having its five-game winning streak stopped.
While the Panthers led from early in the second quarter onward, the game was tight most of the way, and the Wildcats closed to 37-36 by scoring the first basket of the fourth period.
NorthWood responded by scoring the next seven points and Whitko got no closer than five after that.
Frantz's 10-for-10 fourth-quarter shooting at the stripe came over the final 5:36, and capped a challenging day for her.
"She barely made it through walk through today," Neff said, referring to his junior guard's problematic back, "and she had tears in her eyes in the first half, but she played through it. She didn't exactly shoot well (from the field), but she shot free throws well in the fourth quarter."
"I’ve gone to the chiropractor a lot, and (Friday’s semifinal) was a rough one for me, so I iced today," Frantz said, "but there was no way I was going to sit this out."
Tif Alexander added 14 points for the winners, while fellow senior Morgan Olson hauled in 14 rebounds to go with 12 points.
"I'm so proud of the seniors," Neff said of starters Olson, Alexander and Taylor Fielstra along with backup Inger Yoder, who hit a pair of second-half 3-pointers. "I haven't had many years lately where I've had four seniors make it all the way through their senior year, and they're good kids, work hard and understand what it's about. They teach the younger kids. That's part of the experience factor. You need seniors to teach the younger kids, and then the tradition goes on."
"It's so awesome," Olson said of winning her third straight sectional. "It's always fun to win sectionals, and being my last year and Coach Neff's last year makes it even more special."
"I love playing with this team," Alexander said. "It's a great team because we know how to play together, and now we want to go really far, because we haven't been able to do that lately."
NORTHWOOD 56, WHITKO 47
(3A NorthWood Sectional final)
Whitko — Brianna Cumberland 1-5 3-4 5, Jennifer Reiff 5-10 0-2 10, Jordan Hall 5-7 6-7 16, Aly Reiff 4-11 3-5 12, Kelly Reiff 1-4 0-0 2, Aly Nicodemus 1-3 0-0 2, Reghan Craig 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 17-40 (.425) 12-18 (.667) 47.
NorthWood — Morgan Olson 5-12 2-3 12, Taylor Fielstra 0-1 2-2 2 Tif Alexander 7-15 0-0 14, Haley Roe 1-5 1-2 3, Jordyn Frantz 2-11 12-15 16, Tori Schwartz 1-1 1-2 3, Ashley Yoder 0-1 0-0 0, Inger Yoder 2-3 0-0 6, Shyla Southern 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-49 (.367) 18-24 (.750) 56.
Scoring By Quarters
Whitko — 12 12 10 13 — 47
NorthWood — 12 15 10 19 — 56
3-point goals: Whitko (1-12) — A.Reiff 1-5; NorthWood (2-6) — I.Yoder 2-3.
Rebounds: Whitko (30) — Hall 10, J.Reiff 6, Cumberland 5, A.Reiff 5; NorthWood (28) — Olson 14, Fielstra 5, Schwartz 4.
Assists: Whitko (11) — Nicodemus 4; NorthWood (11) — Olson 3, Frantz 3.
Steals: Whitko (1) — K.Reiff; NorthWood (6) — Alexander 2, Frantz 2.
Turnovers: Whitko 17, NorthWood 6.
Total fouls: Whitko 19, NorthWoodx 19. Fouled out — Alexander (1:06, 4th quarter), Cumberland (0:10, 4th).
Records: Whitko 16-7, NorthWood 19-5.
Next: NorthWood vs. Norwell (19-4) in Class 3A Bellmont Regional semifinal Saturday, Feb. 22, approximately noon; follows Garrett (23-0) vs. Muncie Central (17-5) in 10 a.m. semifinal; championship at 8 p.m.