Linton's Miners are on their way back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where they'll meet Tipton at 7 p.m. Friday for the 2021 Class 2A girls state championship in high school basketball.
They tried to make it hard on themselves, going more than half the first quarter before sinking a field goal. But because they also stole the ball from their opponents from University seven times in the first quarter, including the Trailblazers' first five possessions, they were never in much danger in what turned into a 70-32 rout.
Linton was balanced, with all five starters scoring between 10 and 14 points, and eventually became efficient, shooting 60% from the field over the last three quarters. And defensively the Miners forced 24 turnovers and held University to 30% shooting from the field.
"I'm really proud of this team," Aubrey Burgess said after the game. "This is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm really excited we get to go back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse."
"It's not that easy. Winning is not that easy," coach Jared Rehmel insisted later. "But these girls appreciate the small things, and luckily our defense kept us in the game until some balls started to go in."
The Miners got the first point of the game when Gentry Warrick hit a free throw after an offensive rebound with 6:25 left in the first quarter. A minute later, University's Jordan Patterson stole the ball and drove for a layup — University's first shot of the game — and the two teams traded free throws to make the score 3-2 in University's favor at the midpoint of the quarter.
After a little over four minutes of play, Jaylee Hayes broke the ice with one of her patented corner 3-pointers and the Miners led — for good, as it turned out.
Part of her job, Hayes said after the game.
"The past two games I've scored our first points [from the field]," Hayes pointed out. "We just came together . . . we came out ready to play, we came out with confidence and we gave it everything we had."
Linton's lead was still just 6-5, but then Haley Rose sank a long 3-pointer, and then another. Hayes added her second long-range shot, and the quarter ended with Linton on top 15-9.
"That happened to us once last year," Rose recalled of the slow start. "We did not panic. Our defense definitely makes a difference, and when they say defense wins championships, that's not for no reason."
"Sometimes you have to start out slow to get you to start attacking the basket," added Vanessa Shafford. "Haley hit two really big ones. I'm proud of the way our team competed and persevered; we kept grinding it out when the shots weren't falling."
If the Trailblazers felt they'd dodged a bullet, surviving their ball-handling errors with just a six-point deficit, they were about to have their minds changed. Linton got the first nine points of the second quarter to go up by 15, led 35-16 at halftime and steadily pulled away from there. It was 51-20 midway through the third quarter, and even the Miner reserves kept the pressure on in giving their team its biggest lead at 70-31.
"I think our conditioning eventually took over for us," Rehmel said afterward.
There were no big scoring outbursts for the Miners, but that was certainly not a negative. Kelsey Dubois, University's 6-foot-2 sophomore center, was far and away her team's leader Saturday with 14 points and 11 rebounds, but that meant she'd only played even with Warrick. Warrick, who has emerged as another Miner scoring threat the last two weeks (24 points, 18 rebounds), was ahead of Dubois in both categories before taking a seat for good early in the fourth quarter.
"I've been feeling a little bit more confident the last couple games," Warrick said later. "[The last two games] have been a confidence booster, that's for sure. We all feed off each other's energy."
"She was awesome," Rehmel said of Gentry. "She's been awesome all year, but now she's got confidence and she's finishing everything around the basket."
Also scoring 14 was Burgess, who added five rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Shafford and Rose each had 13 points and six rebounds, with Shafford adding seven assists and six steals and Rose three steals and three assists. Hayes scored 10.
The Miners face Tipton on Friday, a team with seven losses that upset 10th-ranked North Judson in Saturday's northern semistate. Linton's guards and team leaders know what they have to do.
"I play every game like it's my last," Shafford said. "I'm doing it for my teammates and my community."
"If we come out and keep playing as a team and keep our foot on the gas [defensively], we'll have a really good chance," Burgess added.