FORTVILLE — Madison Wise turned toward Greenfield-Central head coach Doug Laker and smiled while making her slow stroll to the bench with a little less than two minutes left on the clock.
With the game well in hand, every step taken by the 6-foot-1 junior forward brought one Cougars’ fan after another to their feet as the applause inside the Mt. Vernon High School gym grew to a deafening pitch.
Her exhaustion all but washed away under the tidal wave of appreciation.
Laker, with arms outstretched, didn’t say a word. His bear hug said everything.
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The drought was finally over.
In front of a capacity crowd Saturday night, Class 4A No. 10 Greenfield-Central achieved what no other Cougars team could the past 12 years.
They were champions at last.
“This is a great accomplishment. We worked really hard to get here, and we showed up to play,” Wise said after the Cougars upended Mt. Vernon 61-43 to win the Sectional 9 title. “We really wanted this and knew we could get it if we played how we’ve played all year.
“We believed we could win it.”
The Cougars’ decisive 23-point third quarter erased any lingering doubt.
Fueled by Wise’s game-high 35 points — with 25 coming in the second half — Greenfield-Central captured its first sectional title since 2004 and its ninth all time.
The victory marked the team’s 10th straight and third consecutive in the postseason, but it didn’t come easy.
Much like their 40-37 overtime win against New Castle in the opening round and their back-and-forth clash in the semifinals against Pendleton Heights, the championship finals proved a war of attrition.
One Wise and the Cougars weren’t going to let slip away.
“This was our main goal all year,” said Greenfield-Central senior Savannah Girolami, who played with six stitches in the back of her head after suffering a hard shot that kept her out of the New Castle game. “This is my family. This means everything to us.
“When we play Cougar ball we’re unstoppable.”
Through the final 16 minutes of regulation, Greenfield-Central was practically unbeatable as Wise played a nearly perfect second half.
Deadlocked 19-all at halftime, Wise, who shot 10 of 16 from the field and 13 of 15 from the charity stripe, ignited an 18-8 run early in the second half to turn the tide for good.
She buried 7 of 8 field-goal attempts, including a pair of crucial 3-pointers, to give the Cougars a comfortable 37-29 lead.
A 12-2 run to open the fourth quarter increased their margin to 18 while the defense did the rest against an enervated Marauders squad unable to keep up after countless weeks of setbacks and frustration.
“We got into their legs. They got tired. You don’t practice for a long time with all the injuries they had; I thought we could just wear them down,” Laker remarked in between congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back. “I thought we could get them in the third and fourth quarter and we did.
“They’re a great team, Steve (Doud) is a class act and Sydney Shelton is one of the best players of all time, but what a credit to our kids. They stuck to the game plan, executed and played as a team.”
Limiting Mt. Vernon to 12 of 47 shooting (25 percent), the Cougars were relentless, especially against Shelton, the county’s all-time career leading scorer (1,977 points).
Unable to find her shot, the Butler signee faced consistent double teams and started the game 0-for-10 from the field before finishing with a team-high 19 points.
Despite being hampered by a right leg injury, which sidelined her five games this season, Shelton laced a trio of deep 3-pointers and went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
The Cougars, meanwhile, continued to crank up the pressure, holding the Marauders (17-9) to 24 points compared to their overwhelming 42 in the second half.
Katie Helgason had 12 points, and Wise added five assists and four steals as the Cougars swept through three rematch games against their Hoosier Heritage Conference foes.
Greenfield-Central improved to 22-4 on the season, which set a new single-season best for wins to go with the team’s first outright HHC championship and 7-0 league record.
Mt. Vernon lost in the Class 4A sectional finals for the second time in three years since winning the Class 3A state title in 2012-13.
“Compliments to them. They went the toughest road (beating New Castle and Pendleton Heights) to reach the finals. They survived Tuesday, Friday and tonight,” Mt. Vernon head coach Steve Doud said. “They deserved to be champions. Doug has done a great job. That’s a good team, and I wish them well next weekend.”
Greenfield-Central moves on to the Decatur Central Regional this Saturday where they will face No. 9 Plainfield (24-2) in the first round at noon. The Cougars beat the Quakers 40-36 at home during the regular season on Jan. 12.
No. 5 Indianapolis Roncalli (22-4) and No. 3 Lawrence North (20-3) will play in the other regional semifinal at 10 a.m.
“We’re not done yet,” Laker remarked at an impromptu celebration inside the Cougars’ home gym following a fire truck and police escort through downtown after the game. “What a remarkable group. I’m proud of every single one of them.”