MERRILLVILLE | Merrillville girls basketball coach Amy Govert didn’t compile a 145-38 record entering Saturday’s season opener by being lax about personnel decisions.
It doesn’t matter how many patches and chevrons are on the letterman jacket, let alone which colleges will want stats or game footage as soon as possible. No player is immune to a coach’s decision.
Asked why returning starters Victoria Gaines and Jaz Talley didn’t play for the Times No. 1 Pirates in their season opener against Andrean at home Saturday night, Govert’s refrain was “coach’s decision.”
The absence of the pair was not detrimental to the team as Merrillville had numerous players, including three freshmen, log their first varsity minutes while pressing and trapping relentlessly en route to a 54-33 win over the visiting 59ers.
Gaines, a 6-foot-1 star who verbally committed to Michigan State in the offseason, and Talley, a major contributor for the past two seasons, were in warmups but sat in the second row of the bleachers behind their teammates.
A.J. Downs led the Pirates in scoring with 13 points. Fellow senior Riana Todd added 10.
“I talked with her all week and told her she had to be a scorer for us,” Govert said. “We didn’t know where our points were come from. She’s always been more of a facilitator, but tonight she did a good job looking for her shot.”
Merrillville won last season’s opener up the road at Andrean 60-27, leading 13-0 to start the game.
On Saturday, Merrillville did not extend its lead to double digits until 2:08 remained in the first half when Kiarra Thompson sank a pair of free throws for a 24-13 lead. The lead never dipped into single digits again.
Merrillville led 7-0 to start the game, but Andrean cut it to 8-7 before the final three of the 59ers’ eight first quarter turnovers allowed Merrillville to go ahead 14-7.
“We have to play defense, especially on nights like tonight when the offense isn’t flowing,” Govert said. “Our defense kept us in the game.”
Freshman sensation Jasmine Wright did not play until the second half but did not disappoint. She took two rebounds coast to coast for layups and finished with six points.
Andrean’s Madison Lesch tied Lauren Stazinski for the team lead with nine points despite not playing for the final 14:15. The fearless senior, who left several games last season following daredevil drives, fell hard attempting a layup and being fouled. She left the game and eventually left the bench.
“I told her mom and dad to keep me informed,” Andrean second-year coach Tony Scheub said. “She had a knot on her eye and a bruise on her chin.”
Andrean had trouble finishing its open shots and layups and breaking Merrillville’s full-court press and half-court trap.
“I told the kids we’re not going to play many teams with the speed of Merrillville,” Scheub said. “They pressed us all game, and it’s hard to prepare for that.”