INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to the start of the season, long before Greenfield-Central was ever ranked in the top 10 in the state, Cougars head coach Doug Laker acknowledged the strength of his team’s schedule.
It was something Laker had been building for years — to prepare Greenfield-Central come state tournament time.
It’s safe to say, almost four months later, that his plan nearly worked to perfection.
On Saturday, the Cougars, who boasted the 20th-toughest schedule in the state and won six games against teams ranked in the top 25, literally came up one shot short of a regional title.
After cruising past No. 9 Plainfield 64-50 in the second semifinal at the Decatur Central Regional, No. 10 Greenfield-Central fell victim to No. 5 Roncalli in the title game, missing two attempts at the final buzzer to fall 46-45.
The loss ended a postseason run for the Cougars that in some eyes wasn’t even supposed to continue past their first game (versus No. 17 New Castle).
Greenfield-Central (23-5) took care of business when it mattered most, though, going toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the state while holding its own.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” junior guard Katie Helgason said after the loss. “They have been the best teammates I could ask for. We put a lot of time and work in and it really showed. We wouldn’t have gone this far without being a family.
“It (this experience) taught us not to be scared of the bigger, ranked teams. We weren’t even supposed to win the first sectional game, and we made it to the regional championship.”
Junior forward Madison Wise, who scored a team-high 23 points in the win over Plainfield, led the Cougars with 21 points against the Rebels (24-4) and had a chance to win the game as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Down one with 12 seconds to go, Greenfield-Central inbounded the ball and found Wise posting outside the paint near the right block.
As Roncalli sent a double team, Wise made her move and fired a turnaround jumper that traveled a little too far.
Teammate Jessica Farrell, a sophomore forward, collected the offensive rebound on the far side of the court and almost knocked in the game winner as the buzzer sounded.
Rebels leading scorer, 6-foot-1 guard Lindsey Corsaro, a Kentucky commit, hit the go-ahead free throws with 16 seconds left in the game for Roncalli and finished with a game-high 23 points.
“They did a great job,” Rebels head coach Stan Benge said, who has 580 career wins to his name. “Coach Laker does a good job with them and Madison (Wise) is an outstanding player. (Katie) Helgason made a few plays and is a good basketball player. They hung in there.
“They had shots to win the game at the end. That’s how quickly a game can change. I am happy we won, but I know how they (Greenfield-Central) must feel right now. They gave a great effort.”
With just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Wise went down with an apparent leg injury, but she was able to return in the fourth.
Down 36-31 when Wise exited, instead of folding, the Cougars responded with a 4-0 run to head into the final period down 36-35.
“We just came together,” Helgason said.
A Farrell basket with 6:25 remaining in the game gave Greenfield-Central its first lead since early in the second quarter, but the Rebels would use an 8-0 run to take a 44-37 advantage with less than two minutes left on the scoreboard.
However, Helgason, who scored 17 points in the win over Plainfield, would hit a pair of free throws and Wise would connect on an and-1 to bring the Cougars within two 44-42.
After a Rebel turnover, Greenfield-Central called a play for Wise, but the 6-foot-1 forward, who averages over four assists per game, found Helgason wide open in the right corner for a 3-pointer, giving the team a 45-44 advantage.
“We drew it up for Maddie, but I just kind of happened to be open,” Helgason said. “They assumed it was going to her. Our coaches always prepare us for that moment, we do stuff like that in practice to get ready.”
Nonetheless, Corsaro would drain the aforementioned freebies at the line seconds later to take — and keep — the final lead. The Cougars led 18-15 at the end of the first quarter but trailed 27-23 at the break.
Helgason finished with 11 points in the loss while senior guard Savannah Girolami added 9.
Wise ends the season with 636 total points and is on pace to reach 2,000 next season.
In the first game, the Cougars improved as the game went on and used a 21-7 fourth-quarter burst to top the Quakers for the second time this year.
A Season to Remember
– Most wins for program this century
– First sectional title since 2003-04 season
– First outright Hoosier Heritage Conference title (7-0)
– Beat state-ranked North Central 77-73 in double overtime
– Beat state-ranked New Castle twice
– Beat state-ranked Plainfield twice
– Beat state-ranked Westfield 48-40 at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse
– Lost three games to other ranked teams by a combined 10 points
– Won 11 of its last 12 contests