By Josh Brown
SPRINGFIELD — Two years ago, a previously-undefeated Tippecanoe girls basketball team was routed by 31 points by unbeaten Alter in the regional final on the Knights’ way to a state championship.
Last year, the senior-laden Red Devils stayed within seven at halftime but still lost 54-39 in another regional final as Alter claimed its second straight state title.
Tuesday night, in the teams’ third meeting in as many years, a young and relatively unproven Tippecanoe squad showed what it was capable of, even in defeat.
The Red Devils never let Alter run away with Tuesday’s Division II regional semifinal matchup, turning what had been an 18-point deficit into a six-point game early in the fourth quarter. But the Knights were able to make a couple of clutch plays to maintain control and held on for a 50-41 victory over Tippecanoe to advance to Friday’s regional final.
“It was a game in which we showed a ton of heart,” Tippecanoe coach Andy Holderman said. “We had a couple of opportunities to just roll over — but the girls refused to do that. In the second half, we had an 18-point deficit and got it back to six, and honestly, we were just a couple shots away from making that game really interesting.”
Going from a preseason full of uncertainty, with a shortage of varsity experience aside from a small handful of players, to the effort they turned in against the Knights, calling the Red Devils’ season “interesting” would be selling what they accomplished well short.
“Coming into the season, if you would’ve told me that we would’ve went 23-4, I told the girls, I would have had a massive,” Holderman said. “Just the tenacity of this team, the ability to fight back and not quit. In the end, games come down to just a couple of possessions, and we just came up short on a couple of those.”
Tippecanoe finished the season 23-4 and won the Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division championship in its first season as a member of the league. Entering Tuesday, the Devils had won 10 straight since a 52-33 loss to Carroll — which will be Alter’s opponent in Friday’s regional final.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to walk out with our heads held high,” Holderman said. “We gave it a fantastic effort. We just came up short on the scoreboard.”
And while Alter (25-2) led start to finish, the Devils made sure that the Knights never felt safe.
A series of first-quarter Tippecanoe turnovers allowed Alter to jump out to a 6-0 lead before Brooke Aselage hit a 3 to get the Devils on the board, only to have Alter’s Braxtin Miller answer with a long 3. The margin remained six until the quarter’s end when Tippecanoe senior Taylor Prall sank a 3 to to make the score 12-9 Alter after one.
Miller took over briefly in the second quarter, though, hitting three of her five 3-pointers and scoring 11 points to help Alter take control. A 3 by Cali Stewart and a tough drive by Allison Mader cut the lead to single digits, but a 3 at the buzzer by Libby Bazelak gave the Knights a 32-20 halftime lead.
Miller finished with a game-high 26 points — 19 coming in the first half — while Bazelak had an all-around strong game with 12 points, five rebounds, six assists and six steals. Alter’s defense forced seven Tippecanoe turnovers in the first quarter but only eight more the rest of the game — but they came at the most inopportune times for the Devils.
“Alter is a quality program,” Holderman said. “Their two guards, Miller and Bazelak, they’re fantastic players, and we did what we could. It’s a game of runs, and every possession matters. That’s been our focus, that we need to take care of the basketball. But they gave us opportunities, too.”
Those chances seemed to dry up in the third as Miller’s final 3 of the night gave the Knights their biggest lead at 43-25 — but Tippecanoe was far from done. Mader scored a pair of tough baskets in the paint to wake the Devils up, then Stewart hit a free throw and missed the second, only to have Aselage score on a putback to make the score 43-32 heading into the fourth. Mader then kicked off the final quarter with another strong drive to the basket and Prall canned another 3 to cap off a 12-0 run and get Tippecanoe all the way back to within six at 43-37 with 6:30 left to play.
But Bazelak found Emily Long cutting to the basket for a score to end the run, then she stole the ball and took it in for a layup herself to make it a 10-point game again with 5:30 to play. Aselage hit a jumper to keep Tippecanoe in it, but the Knights won a scramble on the other end for a near-steal and Bazelak finished to make the score 49-39 with 2:10 to go. The Devils were forced to foul from there, and both teams struggled to hit shots from the line until Alter was finally able to dribble out the clock.
Mader, a junior who played a big role for the Devils in both previous meetings against the Knights, led Tippecanoe with 17 points and nine rebounds, with Aselage adding 10 points and five rebounds. Prall, the team’s only senior, and Stewart both had six points, four rebounds and four assists and Hailee Varvel added two points.
Long finished with five for the Knights, Lauren Lush added three and Nicole Hoeflinger and Olivia Gillis both scored two.
“I think most people had us marked off as an easy win (for Alter),” Holderman said. “Our girls and coaching staff truly believed that we could get it done. And again, we were close. A couple possessions here and there. It’s all them dog-gone little possessions that get you. You can play great defense for 23 seconds, relax for two and they hit a 3 on you or get a back-door cut on you.
“I’ll tell you what, the amount of fire that our girls showed tonight was fantastic. Losing one senior, that’s something we can use to build on and hopefully move further in the tournament next year.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.