VALPARAISO | After falling behind at halftime, Lake Central's girls basketball team capitalized inside the paint in the third quarter, making shots it had missed in the first half and finding open shooters.
The Indians turned a 15-point deficit into a three-point deficit in just five minutes.
That's when Merrillville's Victoria Gaines reentered the game after foul trouble sidelined her with 11 points. Gaines scored 10 of her 21 in the fourth quarter as the Pirates' 74-56 win in the Valparaiso Regional semifinal ended Lake Central's season.
"We didn't play great in the first half. We knew it, and they could have easily quit. They just dug in and had a tremendous (third) quarter," Lake Central Coach Marc Urban said. "I'm so proud of our girls, and I felt like they fought as hard as they could. And that's all you can ask."
Post player Lindsay Kusbel scored 12 points, including a three in the third quarter to reduce her team's deficit to nine points. Jessica Bell scored eight of her 13 points in the third quarter.
The Indians (16-8) were 7-of-22 from the field in the first half, then hit 10-of-12 in the third quarter.
"We have nobody that can stop them in the post, especially when we have our (post) players on the bench," Merrillville coach Amy Govert said. "We're already outmatched, which is why we tried to pressure their guards because we knew in the post there was already a mismatch."
The Pirates were led with 23 points from Darian Patton, who sat for eight games in the second half of the season with a hand injury. The senior chipped in four assists and a pair of steals.
"Since she's been back, (Patton) has played tremendous basketball," Govert said. "I don't know if when kids get hurt they see from the sideline what coaches see. So for the eight games she was out, you could hear her encouraging her teammates, and this was her best game by far for us."
After Lake Central pulled to 47-43, the Pirates took advantage of Indians senior Bell on the bench with four fouls to increase the lead to 68-54.
Lake Central ends the season with its second sectional title in three years and first under first-year coach Urban.
The Indians, who finished third in the Duneland Athletic Conference, are slated to return four starters -- after graduating two seniors -- for next season. Included in those returners is sophomore Tara Zlotkowski, whose 16 points led Lake Central.
"I'm proud of our seniors for laying the foundation of what it takes to get it done," Urban said. "That's one of the things that I'll take from this season. Jessica Bell and Jessica DelBovo were great seniors and showed great leadership."