COLDWATER — The New Knoxville girls basketball team didn’t wait its turn to get a share of a Midwest Athletic Conference title.
Even with a roster without a single senior that’s likely to make the Rangers the conference favorite for 2013-2014, when the opportunity to earn the MAC championship presented itself this winter No. 11-ranked New Knoxville seized the moment.
“I told the team they might not get this chance next year, you never know what happens,” New Knoxville head coach Tim Hegemier said. “So we got it done.”
The Rangers reversed a 10-point halftime deficit and outdueled Coldwater in a back-and-forth fourth quarter to grab a piece of the conference’s crown with a 45-40 win on Thursday night at The Palace.
“We were down 10 points,” Hegemier said. “For a young group to come back like that against a very physical Coldwater team, that says a lot about a team.”
New Knoxville (18-3, 8-1 MAC) will begin its tournament trail in the same gym in nine days, but before then the Rangers have a title to celebrate.
“It’s awesome,” New Knoxville junior Haley Horstman said after scoring 20 points for the Rangers. “It’s been a long time since we’ve won one here, so we made it a goal this season. Now that we got it, we’re just looking forward to tournament.”
New Knoxville shares the title with Versailles, which wrapped up its MAC season last Thursday with a matching 8-1 record. The title is New Knoxville’s first MAC crown since 2005, even though the Ranger program has been humming along for a while now. Since that last MAC title the Rangers have a trip to the state championship game in 2007 under their belt, along with a district trip in Horstman and Lehman’s freshman season two seasons ago and a run to the regional semifinal before falling in overtime to Tri-Village last winter.
But that regional qualifier lost much of its size and experience. This year’s team won the MAC title with three juniors, four sophomores and four freshman on the roster — one that was so young that the Rangers didn’t field a JV team this winter. Led by the defending Midwest Athletic Conference player of the year and junior point guard Horstman, the work of junior Paige Lehman on the block and a young surrounding cast, the Rangers soldiered through a grueling MAC slate with just one loss.
The Rangers had nothing handed to them on Thursday, as the Cavaliers (13-9, 4-5 MAC) blitzed the Rangers in the second quarter and went to the locker room up 21-11.
“We just couldn’t get anything to drop,” New Knoxville head coach Tim Hegemier said about a first half that saw the Rangers shoot just 4-for-17 from the floor. “It was one of those games where we couldn’t buy a bucket.”
New Knoxville then scored the first five points of the second half to jumpstart the comeback.
“We knew we really had to come out and push really hard those first four minutes of the second half and we did,” said Horstman, who went 5-of-10 from the floor in the second half.
New Knoxville outscored the Cavs 15-5 in the third quarter to knot the game up at 26-26 heading into the fourth.
The Rangers went ahead for the first time since the first quarter when Paige Lehman made a basket and was fouled. The lead switched hands four times in the fourth quarter.
New Knoxville took the lead for good when freshman Madison Lammers hit a short runner to put the Rangers up 34-33 midway through the fourth. Lammers made two baskets and grabbed three key rebounds off the bench in the second half.
“She’s coming around,” Hegemier said. “She had an arm problem the first part of the season and a little bit of sickness. If we can get her going, that’s really going to help.”
Horstman then knocked down a 3-pointer at the top of the key only to have Coldwater’s Sarah Kanney answer right back with a trey of her own.
“Even when we made our run, Coldwater stayed right with us,” Hegemier said.
New Knoxville freshman Rachel Leffel drained a pair of free throws to make it 39-36 with 2:34 left.
Horstman, who went 7-of-8 at the charity stripe, made four straight free throws in the final two minutes to put the game away, although Coldwater nearly got the ball back with 12 seconds left down by three points. While the two teams scrambled for the ball near midcourt, Horstman was able to grab it and get a timeout called to preserve the possession for the Rangers.
Like the halftime deficit on Thursday, New Knoxville had to overcome a conference loss early this season to get that MAC title. Versailles handed the Rangers a 51-32 loss in Darke County on Dec. 13. New Knoxville has lost just once since and has reeled off 14 straight wins.
New Knoxville opened MAC play with a tough 44-37 win over Minster and then lost by 19 to Versailles on the road. The Rangers drubbed St. Henry 54-33 in its first game of the new year, outlasted Marion Local in double overtime 56-49 and made quick work of New Bremen (44-24) and Parkway (64-46). A 56-46 win against Fort Recovery last Thursday set up a must-win scenario at Coldwater for the MAC title.
The Rangers will enter the tournament as the top seed at the Division IV sectional at Coldwater. New Knoxville received a bye and will play the winner of St. Henry and Marion Local on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 6:15 p.m. at The Palace.
New Knoxville went 15-of-20 from the free throw line.
Ranger sophomore Meg Reineke led the Rangers with nine rebounds to go with her five points, a stat New Knoxville otherwise struggled in. Coldwater outrebounded New Knoxville, 28-16, and the Cavs had 12 offensive rebounds.
“These girls have played like this all season, they’ve kept fighting,” Coldwater head coach Nick Fisher said. “Even when our lead shrunk or got tied up, we still battled.”