CULVER — Four-year Culver Community standout Gwen Zehner strode to the stripe for the biggest pair of free throws of her career Saturday.
Class 2A girls basketball regional final. Team down 32-31 with 38 seconds to go. Home crowd bellowing at ear-ringing decibels. ... And a quick chat with a referee that left the striped-shirt official laughing.
After the brief exchange, the jovial 6-foot-1 forward sank both charity tosses to put the Cavs ahead for the first time in the second half, and Culver hung on for a 37-33 win over Fairfield at John R. Nelson Gymnasium, the school’s first regional championship in any team sport.
“When I went to the line one of the refs asked me, ‘Feeling a little nervous?’” Zehner said. “I told him my hands are so sweaty that when I missed a free throw earlier sweat flicked off of my hands. I was trying to do whatever I could do to dry my hands because I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”
She didn’t, and the sixth-ranked Cavs claimed their 18th straight victory and advanced to a semistate date with Class 2A No. 1 Fort Wayne Luers at Elkhart’s North Side Gym Saturday.
“We used to dream about winning Bi-County and sectional,” Zehner said. “I’ve never even dreamed about winning regional until today. It never seemed fathomable. It’s amazing what we can do as a team, and it’s such a team effort. If one person isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we can’t do it; it takes all of us.”
Patrice McBee, the Cavs’ 6-3 senior center, drilled a pair of free throws of her own with 32 seconds to go, and Zehner split two sets of two-shot fouls in the final 20 ticks as Culver fought back from a couple of six-point fourth-quarter deficits in a sloppy, low-scoring contest.
“Their will to win is unbelievable; I can’t say enough about their will to win, and they make me believe they’re going to win,” first-year Culver head coach Tony Scheub said. “Not one time did they think that we were not going to win. To be down six with 4 minutes left and come back is amazing.
“I’m just really proud of the girls,” he added. “Seeing their faces after they won the Bi-County, the sectional and now the regional makes me want to coach all the harder.”
The Falcons, meanwhile, misfired on three front ends of bonus situations in the fourth quarter, missing out on opportunities to score from the line, even after Culver reclaimed the upper hand.
“We didn’t play the way we’re capable of playing, and when you don’t do that in the regional final, you lose,” Fairfield head coach Steve Proctor said. “We weren’t mentally in it to win a regional final like we should have been.”
Even so, Fairfield looked on track when junior Haley Bechtel scored from the right block to put Fairfield up 29-23 with 4:31 left in the game. The Cavs, though, finished on a 14-4 run to secure the championship.
Culver senior forward Alison Zehner accelerated the final flourish with a triple from the left wing off of a kickout from classmate Whitney Sanders to make it a 30-28 game with 3:38 to go and sent the partisan crowd into a frenzy.
“That shot felt really good,” Alison Zehner said. “I could hear coach (Scheub) from the bench say, ‘A.Z., that’s in.’ I just ran away to the other end, and everybody went crazy. (The crowd) was a big factor; their support is amazing. I love our crowd.”
Culver’s size with Gwen Zehner and McBee finally paid off; Zehner, who sat part of the second and third quarters with three fouls, scored 12 points and reeled in eight rebounds, and McBee finished with 11 points and seven boards. The duo also combined to go 15 of 24 from the free-throw line.
“(Gwen Zehner) did a good job getting open, and they do a good job finding her,” Proctor said. “When she gets the ball that deep we have to foul her, and she does a good job shooting free throws. We were trying to put more pressure on passes on the perimeter.”
However, the size hardly mattered in the first half. Fairfield’s swarming full-court on-the-ball and passing lane pressure left Culver with 20 turnovers and just seven field-goal attempts during the first 16 minutes.
The Falcons struggled offensively as well, piling up 13 first-half turnovers as both squads ran up more turnovers than points and hit the intermission tied at 12-all.
“(Fairfield) pressured our guards – we haven’t seen that sort of pressure – and caused us a lot of problems so we couldn’t make the post entry,” Scheub said. “In the second half we looped our 2 guard through. We tried different stuff. We knew if we got it inside they were in single coverage, and we could score.”
But while Culver somewhat solved the turnover bug, Fairfield hit 6 of 10 from the field to take a 25-20 lead heading into the final quarter. Bechtel scored 10 of her game-high 18 points during the third frame, highlighted by a loose-ball 3-pointer from the left wing to give the Falcons a 23-16 lead at the 2:27 mark.
Also for Culver, Sanders finished with three steals.
Becca Kropf dished out three assists for Fairfield, and Jaime Stack added three steals.
CLASS 2A REGIONAL FINAL
CULVER COMMUNITY 37, FAIRFIELD 33
Score by quarters
Fairfield: 8 12 25 33
Culver: 7 12 20 37
FAIRFIELD (33): Becca Kropf 0 1-4 1, Ellen Line 3 0-2 6, Haley Brown 0 0-0 0, Haley Bechtel 7 3-4 18; Jaime Stack 2 0-0 4, Megan Beasley 1 1-2 3, Emily Beasley 0 0-0 0, Kari Beasley 0 1-2 1. TOTALS: 13 6-14 33.
CULVER (37): Nicole Carnegie 0 0-0 0, Patrice McBee 2 7-11 11, Whitney Sanders 2 1-2 5, Alison Zehner 3 0-0 7, Kayla Shaffer 1 0-0 2, Gwen Zehner 2 8-13 12. TOTALS: 10 16-26 37.
3-point goals: Fairfield 1 (Bechtel), Culver 1 (A. Zehner); Turnovers: Fairfield 19, Culver 25; Rebounds: Fairfield 25 (Bechtel 8), Culver 24 (G. Zehner 9); Assists: Fairfield 6 (Kropf 3), Culver 5; Steals: Fairfield 4 (Stack 3), Culver 7 (Sanders 3); Fouls (fouled out): Fairfield 19 (none), Culver 18 (Carnegie); Records: Fairfield 18-4 (final), Culver 25-1.
CULVER COMMUNITY 44, WHEELER 42
Culver leading scorer Gwen Zehner never even attempted a shot in the first half against Wheeler’s jam-packed 2-3 zone.
But thanks to 11 second-half Culver offensive rebounds and a pair of 3-pointers apiece from Whitney Sanders and Alison Zehner, though, the Cavs survived a stiff regional semifinal challenge to oust the Bearcats 44-42 at John R. Nelson Gymnasium Saturday morning.
“In the second half we came out with a little bit more fire from our post players,” Culver head coach Tony Scheub said. “Whitney and A.Z. knocking down a couple of 3-pointers propelled us. It wasn’t pretty, but at tournament time you do whatever it takes to get the W.”
Sanders scored 10 points to lead the Cavs, followed by eight points apiece from Gwen Zehner and Patrice McBee. Gwen Zehner also pulled down 11 rebounds and scored six of her points on second-chance tries.
“We stressed at halftime that we needed more from our post players,” Scheub said. “Sometimes our best offense is a miss and getting an offensive rebound. In the second half our post players made themselves available to get a rebound rather than getting pushed under the basket.”
Tied 20-20 with 1:02 left in the third quarter, point guard Nicole Carnegie hit a jumper in the paint to open a 15-4 game-deciding run for the Cavs.
Freshman Nickole Finch finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Bearcats.
SEMIFINAL: CULVER COMMUNITY 44, WHEELER 42
Score by quarters
Culver: 6 12 25 44
Wheeler: 7 12 20 42
CULVER (44): Nicole Carnegie 2 3-4 7, Patrice McBee 2 4-11 8, Whitney Sanders 3 2-4 10, Alison Zehner 2 1-2 7, Kayla Shaffer 2 0-0 4, Gwen Zehner 2 4-5 8. TOTALS: 13 14-26 44.
WHEELER (42): Tijana Raketic 3 1-3 8, Christina Gandy 0 1-3 1, Brooke Hutchins 1 2-2 4, Sarah Becker 0 1-4 1, Olivia Ingram 0 1-2 1, Nickole Finch 6 3-4 18, Mari Medina 0 0-0 0, Paige Finch 4 1-1 9, Lauren Johnson 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 14 10-19 42.
3-point goals: Culver 4 (A. Zehner 2, Sanders 2), Wheeler 4 (N. Finch 3, Raketic); Turnovers: Culver 15, Wheeler 17; Rebounds: Culver 40 (G. Zehner 11), Wheeler 29 (N. Finch 11); Assists: Culver 8 (Carnegie, A. Zehner 3), Wheeler 7 (Hutchins 4); Steals: Culver 3, Wheeler 5; Fouls (fouled out): Culver 18 (none), Wheeler 19 (Hutchins); Records: Culver 24-1, Wheeler 13-10 (final).