MERRILLVILLE | For four minutes in the sectional championship girls basketball game last week, Merrillville's Amber Sturdivant and AJ Downs had control of the floor.
With two of the Pirates' top scorers on the bench with three fouls each in the third quarter against Michigan City, Sturdivant grabbed a rebound and with a quick putback tied the game at 40.
Downs increased her defensive effort, forcing City to make turnovers as Merrillville finished the second half of the third quarter down a point.
"Once our starters are in foul trouble, people on the bench have to step up," Downs said. "They can't be all shy and scared to not play against a tough team like Michigan City. That's what we did."
"We talk about it all the time, if everyone thinks they're going to average double digits, we're not going to be successful," Merrillville coach Amy Govert said. "We tell them: if you accept your job, you'll play; if you don't, you won't play. We won't have selfish people on the floor."
When Downs hit all six of her free throws in the fourth quarter, she helped solidify the Pirates' sectional title. Sturdivant, meanwhile, finished with her first career double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Merrillville meets Duneland Athletic Conference foe Lake Central at 9:30 a.m. today in the first semifinal game of the Valparaiso Regional.
After cutting down the sectional title nets at Portage last week, Sturdivant kissed her piece of rope. Then she felt the rush.
"It's one of those experiences that you cut down the net for the first time, and I've never cut down a net," Sturdivant said. "It's almost like an addiction, you want to go out and get it again and again and again."
The Pirates need the players like Sturdivant and Downs for the stats that aren't seen in a box score.
"AJ brings very good defense every night and that's not going to show up in box scores," Govert said. "Her ball pressure creates steals for her other teammates, and her other teammates get credit for the steals, but it's her pressure that forces a player to give up the ball. Running the ball, she's more of a calming presence. There's not as much panic, there's more confidence when she's out there running the show.
"I don't even think (Amber) realized the physical presence she has on the game. Her rebounding, her offensive rebound putbacks, getting inside, she really gives us a lift."
What can be calculated is Sturdivant's average of 4.4 rebounds per game, second best on the team behind 6-foot-1 guard/forward Victoria Gaines. Downs averages 7.2 points, and her 2.2 steals is third best on her team.
"At the beginning of the season I had the mindset that I had to score all these points, because that's what people talked about," Sturdivant said. "Eventually I got out of the selfish mode and had to learn what my role is. ... It is fun to be in the back and people say 'I didn't even know you could do that.'"
Playing unselfish basketball has helped the Pirates to their second straight DAC title and a 19-1 regular-season finish.
"Our goals were always to make it as far as possible and play as a team and work as a team," Downs said. "That's what we've done. Once we got out of the selfish mode, that's what we've done."