MERRILLVILLE | At this point in the season, it’s almost redundant to heap praise on a team that just won its 40th game in the last 42.
Merrillville is fierce, intense, athletic and skilled.
The Pirates are so talent-rich that they were able to begin the game with two starters on the bench as the team paid homage to its seniors in their final home game -- and still led by 22 after a quarter.
After running out to a 26-4 lead the Pirates had no let-up as they shook off their only regular-season loss, last Friday at Michigan City, to crush Crown Point 73-29 and win the Duneland Athletic Conference title outright for the second consecutive year.
“This means a lot,” Merrillville coach Amy Govert said. “It’s our first time ever winning the conference back-to-back, and both years we weren’t favored, which shows a lot about the heart and character of this team.”
With Victoria Gaines and Jaz Talley relegated to reserve status for the first three minutes, all that mattered was that Dariyan Morris was one of the four seniors in the starting lineup.
The speedy guard had all four of her steals in the quarter and 10 of her game-high 21 points in the frame. Her first of two 3-pointers erased a short-lived 4-2 Crown Point lead.
Twelfth-graders Darian Patton, Anjelica Peppers and Amber Sturdivant joined Morris and junior A.J. Downs to start the game.
“We wanted to show our appreciation for them and their hard work,” Govert said. “The fans were great as usual, and we wanted to show them our appreciation as well.”
The group of seniors played enough to keep the Pirates ahead comfortably. In the game’s waning moments Govert tried to send them out for a few more possessions and bring them off to a standing ovation. However, Darian Patton was shaken up by a foul on the play before the end of the bench checked in, impeding the fairy-tale sendoff.
Patton had 15 points and four assists, and Gaines had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Crown Point (5-15, 3-11) matched the Pirates point-for-point in the second quarter but still trailed by 22 at the half. Miranda Elish led the Bulldogs with eight points.
“We bounced back from (the Michigan City loss),” Govert said. “We refocused, and everyone did a great job.”