HOBART | For more than four minutes in the first quarter, Merrillville reminded LaPorte that it was the defending sectional champion.
The Pirates went on a 13-0 run and held LaPorte to just one first-half 3-pointer. In the fourth quarter, Merrillville scored its last eight points from the free-throw line and erased a tie to beat the Slicers 56-49 for the Hobart Sectional title.
“We knew coming in that LaPorte was the team to beat,” senior AJ Downs said. “In the regular season, they beat us by three, so we took that to heart and came in here doing what we had to do to win this game.”
Freshman Jasmine Wright, who led her team with 16 points, hit the final five from the free-throw line, starting with a game-clincher with 20.5 seconds remaining.
LaPorte used a 3-pointer, a defensive rebound and two steals to tie the game at 45-45 with 4:41 remaining. A bucket by Downs regained the Pirates’ lead and when LaPorte fouled Wright with 20.5 seconds remaining, Merrillville held a two-point lead.
“We told them in the locker room ‘don’t leave this locker room if you don’t believe,’” Merrillville coach Amy Govert said. “It was just a matter of playing the best defense of the year and I believe we did that.”
LaPorte, known for its offense beyond the arc, finished with five 3s.
Senior Jaclyn Heath scored a game-high 17 points, including 10 in the second quarter to keep her team in it.
“We got to a point where about all we were getting was Jaclyn,” coach Skeeter Heath said. “She struggled the first seven, eight minutes of the game and then was great from then on. We were just trying to get the ball in her hands and let her create.
“I’m really proud of our team, but we struggled to start and that’s very uncharacteristic of how we’ve played. I’m proud of them for getting back in to tie the game.”
Merrillville won back-to-back sectional championships for the first time in school history, and its seventh overall.
Downs added 14 points, with seven in the fourth quarter. Victoria Gaines scored 10 for the Pirates, who lost to LaPorte on Dec. 13.
“That’s why we played the regular season that we did. We played a different schedule and we were focused,” Govert said. “We were focused and ready to go.”
Merrillville will play Penn at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the first semifinal of the Penn Regional. The Pirates lost to the Kingsmen earlier this season.