The Noblesville Millers ended their 19-year sectional title drought with a 55-41 against Fishers on Saturday night. Photos by Shawn Barney
The Noblesville Millers ended their 19-year sectional title drought with a 55-41 against Fishers on Saturday night. Photos by Shawn Barney
FISHERS - Their sectional title drought was motivation enough, but on Saturday night it was the Noblesville Millers' heart that elevated them to the height of a champion.

Rallying around junior Katelyn O'Reilly after she went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter, the sixth-ranked Class 4A Millers banded together and with a decisive second-half surge they put their nearly two decades of sectional futility to rest.

Working collectively to slow down the up-tempo ninth-ranked Fishers Tigers, Noblesville marched to a double-digit lead and an eventual 55-41 Sectional 8 finals victory to claim its first championship since 1996.

"I wanted to go out there and do it for my seniors and for Katelyn because I knew she was in pain. She was giving us everything she had, so we had to do the same in return," Noblesville junior Alexis Shannon said after the team cut down the nets at Hamilton Southeastern on Valentine's Day. "She was fighting through, so we had to fight through whatever pain we were feeling.

"We all just wanted this so bad."

O'Reilly, the team's motivational leader, soared for a rebound on the first possession of the second quarter only to crumble to the floor withering in pain with her ankle in hand.

Helped off the court, the forward was sidelined for several minutes before she walked back into the game under her own power heavily taped, limping prominently and the Millers (22-3) clinging to a 15-13 lead against the defending sectional champion Tigers (20-6).

It didn't go unnoticed.

"To see her come back in and she was even limping when she came back in, but she played through that. To have the guts to do that was way over me," Noblesville senior Becca Bergman remarked. "She was playing for the team not for herself."

In the first half, the Tigers were digging deep for a repeat.

Winning their first-ever sectional title last year, senior guard Adrianna Murphy came out on fire. The Southeast Missouri State commit hit seven consecutive field goals, including a trio of 3-pointers, after missing her first shot to force four lead changes and three ties before halftime.

Murphy scored a game-high 26 points with 17 in the first half, but a coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds of the second quarter by Shannon put the Millers up 23-21.

Fishers junior Kara Gerka, who scored 10 points to surpass 1,000 in her career, tied the game for the final time with an and-1 three minutes into the third quarter at 27.

But the Tigers wouldn't get any closer than four points the rest of the way.

Ramping up their patented pressure defense and divvying up the assignment of contesting Murphy's every shot, the Millers ran out to a 7-0 run in the third capped by a Bergman and-1 and a runner by Shannon.

The Millers defense induced four turnovers to keep the Tigers' offense silent for nearly three minutes while Shannon was getting warmed up for her 14-point finale in the fourth. She led the team with 24 points.

"Their defensive pressure was phenomenal like it's been all season. They were the same way when we played them earlier in the year," Fishers head coach Michael Gaines said. "They're so resilient and tenacious. It never stops. They play so quick, when you do get openings, they are so quick to recover. Their use their athleticism very well."

Similar to when the Millers defeated the Tigers 45-33 on Dec. 12 during the regular season, they found crucial production from the bench.

Kiser hauled in five rebounds to complement the tenacity of O'Reilly and senior center Erin Wood, who grabbed had seven and five boards, respectively.

Cori Cain, a senior, had six points and drilled a 3-point dagger to end the third quarter that put Noblesville ahead 37-30.

"I have to give a lot of credit to Cori Cain (on defense)," said Bergman, who had 12 points with seven in the second half. "We switched her to go on (Murphy) and she handled her very well. She was a big part of what we did."

Drawing Murphy a majority of the game, Bergman and the Millers held her to three points in the third. Against Hamilton Southeastern in the sectional semifinals the night before, Murphy scored 15 points to propel the Tigers to a 36-35 win. She had 16 versus Zionsville in the quarterfinals.

"Our post players kept going too far low and they had to come out higher on the trap and make it tough on her," Noblesville head coach Donna Keck said. "With our length and our size of our post players, if we can double, she wouldn't have all those easy looks. That was something we did a much better job of, contesting and making it tough."

With O'Reilly on the floor most of the fourth quarter, the Millers made a comeback improbable.

Shannon pushed the lead to 10 points twice while the defense racked up three more turnovers. Cain combined with Shannon and Bergman to sink 8 of 8 free throws, which put the game out of reach in the game's final minute.

"They don't make them any tougher," Keck remarked on O'Reilly. "She started the season, had a car wreck on Saturday night and totaled her vehicle. I'm in the ER with her, I'm thinking she's going to be out for a while. Monday ... she practiced and then played two games that week.

"We knew unless something was broke and broke bad, she was coming back. She's tough, so we knew she would just grit it out."

Every step through the tournament was a grind for the Millers. They faced three consecutive rematches with Carmel in the quarterfinals, North Central in the semifinals and Fishers in the title game.

However, Saturday night's final second go around meant a little more as Noblesville lost to Fishers in the sectional semifinals 58-43 last year.

But not this time.

Now, they have a date with McCutcheon (18-8) at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21 in the Kokomo Regional.

"Hopefully, it sets a tradition we can continue for years to come so it's not one of those questions where it's been since whatever. We want this to be the expectation here," said Keck, who coincidently led Greenfield-Central with, now Fishers assistant coach, Lauren Vail, to a sectional title in 2004. "My first one was 11 years ago today, so I like Valentine's (Day) a little bit."