LAKEVILLE — Triton hit the floor Friday night looking as though the Northern State Conference championship was a foregone conclusion.
After all, the defending co-conference champs had just beaten LaVille with less than their best stuff in the Bi-County Tournament two weeks ago. The trouble was, the revenge-minded Lancers had different ideas.
But the Trojans played well enough to hang around despite a slow start, and they turned it on in the second half, taking their first lead of the night early in a 23-7 third quarter and never looking back for an eventual 56-41 NSC championship victory at Dale E. Cox Gymnasium.
"I was worried. Not that we wouldn't give the effort; we always play hard, it's just the mental focus part of it sometimes is a struggle," said Triton girls basketball coach Adam Heckaman. "We haven't played for a week, we don't play again for another week. Obviously sectional is there on the horizon, and they're thinking about that a little bit. I was a little worried about that. I knew that we would get going as long as they challenged us a little bit. I thought that we would at least wake up early enough to get going and make sure we had our chances."
The win completes a perfect 7-0 NSC slate for Class A No. 9 Triton, giving the team its first outright conference championship since the program's 2000-01 state championship squad and supplying the school with back-to-back Northern State titles after splitting the league championship with Bremen last season.
"This is the first time in a very long time, obviously, that we went undefeated in the conference, won it outright," said Heckaman. "Back-to-back years conference champions, it's been a long time since we've done that. So I told the girls they're a special team to come out and do it, and that's will always be something that they're going to be able to remember, when they see 2013 right next to 2012. Hopefully this is a string of things to come, things that we can keep doing."
Anxious for a reprisal following their 56-50 Bi-County semifinal loss on their home floor Jan. 17, the Lancers started fast Friday.
Katie Berger's steal and wing triple on a Kyla Coblentz swing sparked a 7-0 game-opening run, and Amanda Carbiener scored eight of her 12 points for the night in the first frame as LaVille jumped out to a 15-10 lead at the quarter break. Both teams stumbled somewhat in the second quarter, but the Trojans were able to use revamped defensive pressure to cut their deficit down to two at halftime when Shana Anderson split a pair of free throws in the double bonus with 9 seconds remaining on the clock to bring the score to 20-18.
Kylie Mason gave her team a spark after the intermission, tying the game up at 20-all with a pull-up jumper off the elbow just 12 seconds into the second half, and she knocked down 5 of 6 shots in the quarter on her way to a game-high 24 points as the Trojans nearly doubled their offensive output in the period to grab a 39-27 cushion headed into the final frame.
"They got in man-to-man, we got in our screen and roll offense, and we were more aggressive going off the screens," Heckaman said. "We were looking to score, we were looking to find the open jump shots or the open shooters. We're making the extra pass in the second half. We were doing all the things we should have been doing in the first half, but it took a little awakening in the first half to do it. (Mason) stepped up, hit a lot of big shots, we got some steals, we were able to hit some free throws finally, some layups, and just got our confidence back."
After scoring at an efficient 7-of-16 clip from the floor in the first half, LaVille finished their shots at a 9-of-32 rate over the final two periods.
Part of the problem was Triton's ball pressure, and with the Lady Trojans converting at 62.5 percent in the second half, the visitors had ample opportunity to set up their fullcourt press. While the Lancers finished with a not-overwhelming 16 turnovers in the game, including only seven in the second half, the pressure combined with a growing deficit to speed LaVille up on the offensive end and keep the ball out of the frontcourt where the Lancers had found some success early in the game.
"We got sped up a lot. Throw a bounce pass, reverse the ball, that's how you get something done against them from our standpoint," said LaVille head coach Kevin McCullough. "Once you give them that easy pass… that's exactly what they want. So then you have to run down, you have to work against the press. All of a sudden you're sprinting down on defense because you might not have been in an exact right spot or a good position. Then you're sprinting back down on offense or working against the press. I give them credit for getting the game sped up."
"We talked about, hey, we've got to get the ball reversed and get it inside, which is how we were successful to start the game," McCullough continued. "We lost track of that. I give Triton credit for that. They got us sped up and they got that spurt. Even though we were able to start getting it back inside again, then it was too late. It's hard for us to press and take the ball away from Triton, as it is most teams. Somehow they won 16 games and they're undefeated in our conference, and that's why — because they can take care of the ball, and they can speed a lot of teams up."
Triton was led at LaVille by Mason's 24 points, and Anderson's all-around performance of 15 points with seven rebounds, four steals, two assists and a block.
The Lancers saw balanced production from Carbiener with 12 points, Hannah Herbster with 10 points and Kelsey Gurtner with 11 points and nine rebounds. Kyla Coblentz dished up five assists with three points in the loss.
"Our kids battled. I told the girls we played them twice, they beat us twice, they might be a little better than us. That match-up just might be in their favor; obviously it is," said McCullough.
"I give congratulations to the Trojans on the conference championship."
Triton closes out regular-season play at 16-5 with a 7-0 conference mark and will enter Sectional 51 play at Oregon-Davis next Friday against the winner of Tuesday's opener between Culver Community and South Central.
"Our sectional is really good. When you look at the Sagarin ratings last week, I don't know what it is this week, but you have five of the top 20 teams in the state in our sectional," Heckaman. "You've got to go in every night ready to play. Everybody's going to bring their best game. It's something everybody wants to win."
LaVille finishes up regular-season play at an even 10-10 and tied for fourth in the NSC with Knox and Bremen at 3-4. The Lancers also drew the bye at the Class 2A Sectional 35 tourney at Central Noble and will play the winner of a Bremen-Prairie Heights quarterfinal in the early semifinal Friday night.
"I think we're ready to go, and I hope we have some confidence going into the sectional," McCullough said. "The last three teams we played would compete well in our sectional, and we did some good things against them."
• TRITON 56, LaVILLE 41
Score by quarters
Triton: 10 18 39 56
LaVille: 15 20 27 41
TRITON (56): Allie Kann 0, Taylor Hatfield 6, Breanna Lemler 1, Krystal Sellers 8, Kylie Mason 24, Mallorie Jennings 2, Shana Anderson 15; Totals: 21 10-18 56.
LaVILLE (41): Kelsey Gurtner 11, Paige Hawkins 0, McKenzie Leed 0, Kyla Coblentz 3, Hannah Herbster 10, Katie Berger 3, Lynae Hostrawser 2, Amanda Carbiener 12, Heather Dorn 0, Sydney Good 0, Lauren Hostrawser 0; Totals: 16 7-11 41.
3-pointers: Triton 4 (Mason 3, Anderson 1), LaVille 2 (Coblentz 1, Berger 1); Rebounds: Triton 29 (Anderson 7), LaVille 32 (Gurtner 9); Turnovers: Triton 9, LaVille 16; Steals: Triton 12 (Anderson 4), LaVille 7 (Berger 2, Hostrawser 2); Assists: Triton 7 (Hatfield 2, Anderson 2), LaVille 7 (Coblentz 5); Fouls (fouled out): Triton 13 (none), LaVille 16 (Leed).
Records: Triton 16-5 (7-0 NSC), LaVille 10-10 (3-4 NSC)