GARY — Two teams defending multiple championships, two elite scorers leading those respective squads, and only one trophy traveled to Saturday’s Class 3A West Side Sectional championship.
With senior Daijah Smith of three-time defending champion Lighthouse trading highlight-reel plays with West Side super-sophomore Dash Shaw, entertainment was not in short supply, but it took a secondary player from one of the teams to provide the difference and create crucial separation.
Freshman Trinity Thompson was in the right place at the right time often in the fourth quarter and helped make a difference as West Side turned a late two-point deficit into an 11-point cushion and eventual 64-60 championship victory Saturday night.
“Our team never gave up,” Shaw said. “We wanted this game, especially at home. I told everyone to listen to Coach Fisher. He might yell, but we were never going to give up no matter what the score was."
The Cougars (17-7), who will play Knox (21-4) in the Twin Lakes Regional semifinals next Saturday, won their 19th sectional and third in a row, the last two coming in Class 4A.
Coach Rod Fisher danced in a midcourt circle of players afterward. He smiled and did so numerous times.
“I feel like I’m 35 years old again,” Fisher said. “This was a great game between two outstanding players. We both made runs, and we never felt untouchable. Daijah is a great ballplayer who can score at the drop of a hat. To hold her to just 27 is something.”
Shaw scored 33 points for the second night in a row, including 12 fourth-quarter free throws. Her foul shots with 6:12 to play broke a 40-40 tie before Thompson scored three consecutive buckets for the Cougars, usually off putbacks of Shaw misses, and Jada Dixon canned a 3-pointer to put them up 54-43 with 3:42 to go.
Thompson finished with 14 points, and the Cougars only used six players all night.
“I have faith in all my teammates, so whoever’s scoring, it doesn’t matter,” Shaw said.
From there Shaw’s parade to the free throw line was detrimental to the Lions’ comeback hopes. She went 12-for-14 from the line in the fourth and had 24 of her points after halftime. The lead swelled to double digits one more time, and only in the final minute did Lighthouse cut it close.
Smith scored 27, including a go-ahead 3-pointer as she was crumbling to the sideline with 7:25 to go in the game. The 40-38 lead procured by that shot was the first and last one of the night for the Lions (14-11), who built a program less than a decade ago and had been the perennial champion among this group before West Side was grouped into it.
In a tale all too familiar for a team with only nine uniformed players, two of whom never checked in, the Lions took a lot of energy to get the lead and could not sustain it.
A Shaw hoop tied it, and her free throws gave West Side the lead for good.
Smith, who had an even 100 points in three sectional games this week, went cold down the stretch but hit some shots at the end of the game. The Indiana State recruit and potential Indiana All-Star was downtrodden throughout the waning moments of the game. The Lions did not shake hands with the Cougars afterward.
“We’re all from Gary, so why not shake hands?” Shaw said.
Smith was on the court the entire night, even though she picked up her third foul on a charge midway through the second quarter. Lyric Ward, another senior for Lighthouse who had never experienced a loss at the sectional level, returned after a two-game injury absence to score 12 points off the bench.