NAPPANEE – The Whitko Lady Wildcats never backed down Saturday night, in the end they just came up short.
Facing the host Lady Panthers, as well as the winningest girls basketball coach in state history, Whitko trailed by just three points after three quarters before falling 56-47 in the championship game of Class 3A Sectional 21 at NorthWood High School.
“We played a lot on adrenaline, especially early on,” said third-year Whitko coach Brandon Bradley. “We got pretty tired. They played matured and focused (down the stretch) and we were tired.”
NorthWood made 18 of 24 free throws in the win, including a 10-of-10 effort in the fourth quarter by junior Jordyn Frantz.
Whitko saw its season end with a 16-7 record, just one win shy of tying the program’s record for victories in a season, while NorthWood improved to 19-5 and advanced to the Bellmont Regional.
The Lady Panthers will face Norwell (19-4) at noon Saturday.
Third-ranked Garrett (23-0) will play Muncie Central (17-5) in the first regional semifinal at 10 a.m.
The championship game is scheduled for Saturday night, with the winner advancing to the semistate at either Crown Point or Warsaw.
“I’m so proud of our seniors,” said NorthWood coach Steve Neff, whose team starts three seniors and also brings one off the bench as a key reserve. “I haven’t had very many years where four seniors have made it all the way through their senior year. They’re good kids. They 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 and on.”
The switch to class basketball during the 1997-98 season got rid of the David-vs-Goliath matchups, as schools of similar size now face each other in the state tournament.
In terms of program success, however, Saturday night’s sectional final between NorthWood and Whitko was very much a David-vs-Goliath situation.
While the Lady Wildcats are still searching for their first sectional championship, the Lady Panthers have now won 24.
“The kids believed they could win this game,” said Bradley. “I don’t believe in nerves. In the end, it’s all just basketball.”
NorthWood is now tied with Ben Davis for second in the state in total girls basketball sectional titles.
Rushville leads, winning its 29th sectional title on Saturday.
In leading NorthWood to its 24th sectional crown, Steve Neff, who is retiring after 37 years at the end of the season, improved his coaching record to 653-180.
Donna Cheatham, whose Scottsburg team lost in the sectional final Saturday, is second in all-time wins with her career mark of 649-209 in 39 seasons.
“No. 1 and No. 2 goals are done, so everything else is just icing on the cake,” said Neff. “The lady chasing me got beat today and we won the sectional, so that was No. 1 and No. 2. She’s 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.”
Coaching his last game in The Pit, Neff saw his Lady Panthers tied 12-12 after one quarter of play before leading 27-24 at halftime and 37-34 at the end of the third quarter.
Whitko trimmed the deficit to one with a bucket to open the final frame, but NorthWood responded with a 7-0 run, taking a 44-36 lead when Frantz converted a pair of free throws with 5:36 remaining.
The Lady Wildcats got no closer than five points the rest of the way.
Frantz, who has battled back problems, led NorthWood with 16 points, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter.
“She barely made it through the walk through today,” Neff said of Frantz. “She had tears in her eyes in the first half, but she was able to play through it. She didn’t exactly shoot well, but she shot free throws well in the fourth quarter.”
Tiffanie Alexander added 14 points in the win, while Morgan Olson, the school’s leader in points and rebounds, finished with 12 points and 14 boards.
Whitko, a team that starts a pair of freshmen and a sophomore, got 16 points and 10 rebounds from senior Jordan Hall, while freshman Aly Reiff added 12 points and sophomore Jennifer Reiff finished with 10 points.
“We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season,” said Bradley, whose team went into Saturday’s game having won five straight. “Of our top eight kids, only three had any experience. These kids worked hard.”
Whitko’s roster has just two seniors, Hall and Kelly Reiff, both of whom were in the starting lineup.
Kelly Reiff finished the game with two points.

NORTHWOOD 56, WHITKO 47
W    12    12    10    13    –    47
NW    12    15    10    19    –    56
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 12-18 47.
NorthWood – Morgan Olson 5-12 2-3 12, Taylor Fielstra 0-1 2-2 2, Tiffanie 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 18-24 56.
Three-pointers – Whitko 1 (A. Reiff), NorthWood 2 (I. Yoder 2); Rebounds – Whitko 30 (Hall 10), NorthWood 28 (Olson 14); Turnovers – Whitko 18, NorthWood 6; Fouls – Whitko 19, NorthWood 19; Fouled out – Cumberland, Alexander; Records: Whitko 16-7, NorthWood 19-5