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GIRLS BB: Winamac survives Pioneer to advance to sectional final

Feb. 3—DENVER — Pioneer had its chances at an upset but Winamac survived and advanced in a sectional game Friday night.

After a hot shooting night earlier in a win over Wabash earlier in the week, the Warriors turned to their defense in a 41-27 victory over the Panthers.

The Warriors utilized a triangle-and-two to slow down Pioneer's two leading scorers, Makenna Strycker and Mia McKaig.

Strycker entered averaging 13 ppg but was held scoreless. McKaig averaged 8.4 ppg but was held to six.

Freshman Lois Layer led Pioneer with 15 points, more than 10 over her average. But it wasn't enough to get the Panthers (6-16) past the Warriors (14-9).

"I wanted to be a strong defensive presence tonight," Winamac coach Tony Stesiak said. "The focus was anybody but 10 [Strycker] and 20 [McKaig]. When Pioneer has played well down the stretch, 10 and 20 have been scorers. We wanted to take those two away and make them go to other spots. Layer did a nice job, really knocked down some spots, credit to her. But it's hard to continue that when you're not used to doing that a lot. So it was a knock down, drag out.

"I thought we had great shots in the first half. The hot start we had Tuesday didn't quite carry over. I felt the shots were very similar. That's tournament basketball. We haven't been super consistent, look at our record, but we have played great defense so we weren't panicking by any stretch at halftime. We knew it was going to be a tough game and I liked it. We were able to keep them again like Wabash an arm's length away."

Marissa Iverson led the Warriors (14-9) with 12 points in the post. Maggie Smith had nine points and Sadie Popejoy added eight. Kandace Kroft had a solid all-around game with seven points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Piper Link added five points and seven boards.

It was a defensive battle from the outset and the Panthers did a good job of slowing down the pace. Winamac led 8-6 after one, 18-13 at halftime and 26-21 after three.

The Warriors opened the fourth with a 6-0 run to take a 32-21 lead and the Panthers never got it closer than nine the rest of the way.

"Really the start of the game and the first half, that's the type of game we wanted it to be. We wanted it to be a very low possession," Pioneer coach Adam Berry said. "I told the girls all week, I don't care if we ran the whole quarter off. It's hard. As a player it's hard because you're always told get to the basket, score, score, score, so it's hard. But overall I thought we did a good job. Lois Layer stepped up, hit some big shots for us. Other times we got great shots in the lane around the basket, just didn't quite fall."

The Panthers were never able to find a good rhythm offensively against the triangle-and-two.

"We knew there was a good chance they were going to play that hard deny on Strycker," Berry said. "It's one of those things we talked about, we worked on it at practice, it's just very hard to simulate truly what it's going to look like. That part we didn't quite execute but we're down by five at halftime against a solid team, a low scoring game, exactly what we wanted. They came out and made more plays when it counted in the second half.

"They have a great coach. He just saw us a week ago. You knew he was going to make adjustments after watching that film. At times he was able to speed us up enough to force us into mistakes we weren't making early on to really build that lead."

Winamac had just beaten Pioneer 52-29 11 days earlier when Strycker had 13 points and McKaig scored 10. Pioneer turned around and won at North Judson the next night and led West Central for most of the game later in the week.

"Pioneer's a young team, they remind me of a lot like us last year, a lot of players getting their first varsity experience," Stesiak said. "It's tough, you keep getting different defenses thrown at you. McKaig and Strycker are really good players but I don't know if they've seen that kind of defense and we made them uncomfortable in just enough ways. Just like the other night, that's the theme this week, 'just enough.'

"McKaig, we just wanted to take away her catch and shoot on her 3-pointer. Strycker, we didn't want her to get going and just make it tough and maybe get her frustrated. Maggie Smith is just an elite athlete. She can chase a lot of people so we wanted to come shut her down. That really disrupted their rhythm and we were able to play our style of basketball."

Berry looks for his team to learn from the loss. The Panthers will graduate just two seniors, Gracie Hopper and Casey Webb.

"We're a young team still. This program is still a young team with only two seniors," Berry said. "I guarantee if they're in the same situation next year they're going to learn from it and they're going to remember it and they're going to execute better."

Winamac plays No. 12 Lewis Cass (20-3) at 7 p.m. tonight for the sectional championship. It'll be the teams' first meeting since November of 2018 and first-ever meeting in the state tournament.

"Kyle [Amor] and I go back to when he was at Glenn and we had a classic tournament game [in 2014]," said Stesiak, who coached at Rochester for 17 years. "He's such a great guy and has built that program in the right way. A lot of weapons and there's size that Pioneer doesn't have, there's ball-handlers that Pioneer didn't have. We're going to have to guard differently. We've got to respect everybody on their team. We'll go to the drawing board tonight and figure something out for tomorrow and try to be one point better."