By Josh Brown
SPRINGFIELD — After they lost their star player in the fourth game of the season, most area girls basketball pundits wrote off the Tippecanoe Red Devils.
During their run to their second consecutive regional title game, the Devils made sure no one could do that again.
And even after defending Division II state champion Alter — which defeated Tippecanoe in that regional final last year — went on an 11-0 run to start the second half, the packed house at Springfield High School was still waiting for what became the Devils’ trademark, the magical come-from-behind rally.
But the Knights (26-2) made sure that didn’t happen, always making a big play on either offense or defense to ensure the Devils couldn’t build any momentum, holding off Tippecanoe 54-39 in the D-II regional championship game Friday night to advance to next week’s state semifinal and end the Red Devils’ season at 22-6.
“Like we told the girls, only one team gets to end the season without a loss,” Tippecanoe coach Andy Holderman said. “It does sting. The girls battled and never gave up. We got ourselves into a position a couple times to make a run, but a turnover here or there or a 3 by them … we could never quite get over the hump.”
It was still an impressive effort by the Devils, who lost 64-33 to the same Knights in last year’s regional final matchup between the No. 1 and 2 teams in the state in D-II at the time. Since then, they graduated all-time leading scorer Halee Printz, who is currently playing for the University of Toledo Rockets, and lost returning senior leading scorer Carly Clodfelter for the season to injury in only the fourth game of the year.
The Devils went on to win the sectional championship by erasing a 17-point deficit against Carroll, win the district title by fighting back from a 12-point deficit against Mariemont, tying the game at the buzzer and winning in overtime, and hold off a similar rally attempt from Caledonia River Valley in the regional semifinal round.
Alter was simply a different animal altogether.
“That is a very good team. One of the best teams in the state,” Holderman said. “That says a lot about our girls, the way they played tonight. I thought we played hard, but we just didn’t get some shots to fall early, some bunnies that we’ve just got to make.”
The Knights began the game strong, forcing turnovers on the Devils’ first three possessions, jumping out to an 8-2 lead and leading by as many as 11 in the first at 18-7 after the first of four 3-pointers by Hayley Combs, but a bucket inside by Sammie Rowland cut the lead to 18-9 after the first eight minutes.
The Devils missed a series of four open layups and putback attempts early in the second quarter, and Alter took advantage by building a 25-12 lead. Back-ti-back 3s by Rowland and Allison Mader got the Devils back to within seven before Combs answered with a 3 of her own, but Mikenna Varvel hit yet another 3 to get Tippecanoe back to within seven at 28-21 at halftime.
Tippecanoe was only 8 for 23 from the field in the first half — but five of those were 3s, allowing the Devils to stay in the game. Combs countered that with 3 first-half 3s, though.
“There were a few situations early where we let Combs get away from us, and she buried shots, put those nails in the coffin,” Holderman said.
The real nail, though, came at the beginning of the third quarter as Alter scored the second half’s first 11 points to take a 39-21 lead. A tough bucket in the paint by Aubrey Cox got the Devils to within 13 at 41-28 late in the third, but that would prove to be as close as Tippecanoe got the rest of the way.
Combs finished with a game-high 19 points and seven rebounds, Braxtin Miller scored 13 of her 16 points in the second half and Libby Bazelak added 10 points for the Knights, who will face Columbus Eastmoor Thursday in the state semifinal round. Kara Stephenson added seven points and Olivia Gillis scored two.
Rowland led the Devils with 10 points and six rebounds, Mader had eight points and three assists, Taylor Prall had seven points and five rebounds, Cox had five points and seven rebounds, Cassidy Wasson had five points, five assists and four rebounds and Varvel added four points.
And though the Devils say goodbye to eight seniors this year, they’ve left their mark on the program — and now both they and the teammates they leave behind will try to take things to the next level.
“I’ll tell you, they set the bar high, that’s for sure,” Holderman said of the seniors. “These girls gave their heart and souls to the team. They’d go to practice every day, get after it and show these young ones how you do it. I’m extremely proud of all the girls.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.