BLUFFTON — I can’t think of a single fairy tale that ends with hoisting up a piece of wood shaped like the state of Indiana and cutting down pieces of nylon one by one.
But if you look in the eyes of Bluffton players on Monday night as they celebrated their second straight Class 2A sectional championship, fairy tale really is the only phrase that comes to mind. Is that dramatic of me to say? Probably. But fair is fair and for those ladies on Monday night, making school history was just as important as anything else.
In the end, the scoreboard was illuminated with a 49-41 win over Adams Central and that history officially made.
“It is unbelievable. I never thought it would actually come but it really is a dream come true,” Bluffton senior Grace Miller said moments after cutting down a piece of net, her smile beaming through the gym.
“We cut those nets on our floor. I can’t believe just how much effort the team has put in.”
The majority of this team is back from last year‘s sectional championship team that ended a 20 year championship drought for the program. By making it two straight, they have done something that has never been done in the history of Bluffton girls basketball. It is also just their third sectional championship ever.
“We just made school history. I couldn’t be more proud with the things they have had to overcome. The ups and downs, the wins and losses, the injuries. I just couldn’t say enough about them,” Bluffton coach Karl Grau said.
The game started out all Bluffton, kind of quietly at first. But when Miller got the ball in the short corner and nailed a little jumper with 3:15 left to play in the first quarter, the lead was — all of the sudden — a very loud 8-0. It also forced Adams Central to burn their second timeout of the game.
When Olivia King put in her first basket of the game, Bluffton extended their lead to 10-0 with five different baskets from five different scorers. McKenna Dietsch scored the Flying Jets’ first basket with 45 seconds left in the opening quarter; she ended with a game high 15 points.
Bluffton led 11-2 after the first.
“We told them, let’s get out to a great start. Our defense has carried us all season and it carried us tonight and it carried us throughout the entire Sectional. Our defense helps our offense,” Grau said. “When you play good defense, you are always going to give yourself a chance and that is what we hang our hat on.”
The Flying Jets attempted to make a comeback early in the second quarter, but it was thwarted by Emme Boots’ eight footer with five minutes to play in the second quarter. Adams Central could have had momentum after a Dietsch three pointer turned into a Bluffton turnover, but the Flying Jets couldn’t make anything of it trailing by seven.
Miller closed the half with a big basket for Bluffton. After the play she was trying to orchestrate didn’t develop, Miller kind of shrugged and put up a shot from the foul line in the closing seconds of the first half for her fourth first half basket. Bluffton led 25-16 at the break.
It was a big first half for a team that was expected by many to not only contend, but even win the Allen County Athletic Conference. They fell short of the that goal in the regular season and in the tournament, when conference unbeaten Jay County beat them in overtime. But the lack of an ACAC crown could have refocused them.
“The expectations were there. They wanted it, they felt it. They knew they could do it but it was a matter of getting it done. When you see that and the ACAC is out of reach, you have to recharge and refocus. It took us a little bit, but we were able to do it,” Grau said.
Call me old-fashioned, but few things be those out of the city schools in the noise that their crowds can generate. Bluffton High School’s gym was about halfway full on Monday night, but it felt like every person from Bluffton and Monroe was packed inside because of the noise, the buzz and the environment of those who did make the trip out for this really weird and rare sectional championship Monday.
The buzz never faded, even at halftime. In fact, it certainly intensified.
With 4:15 left in the third, Boots put in back to back baskets. The second of those came off an Alyssa Burchett steal that led to a wide open layup for Boots. After that score, the expressions of the Tigers all changed a little. From the pregame warm ups on, they looked serious and aggressive. After Boots pushed the lead to 31-18, they seriousness wasn’t gone but the Tigers looked like the gravity of the moment was on their minds.
Then an Adams Central 6-0 certainly made the game look much different.
“Stay calm, stay patient, stay poised,” Grau said of his message to the team when the Flying Jets made runs. “Let’s do our thing. Don’t let the game get out of reach to where you can’t focus.”
Bluffton kept on swinging. They have been fighters all along and that was clear when I was in the gym in the preseason even. So they fought. They did it in the third with good ball movement and court vision that found powerful baskets inside, including those of Boots and important, but not enough credited senior post Allison Powers.
Sage Hammond’s basket with 2:30 left in the third sparked more hope for Adams Central. Burchett crushed that pretty quickly a minute later when a long rebound bounced right into her hands at the top of the arch and she buried a three pointer to give Bluffton back a ten point lead, 37-27.
“Personally it was just rebounding and handling the ball, making sure my entire team was calm so we could stay collected and win that championship,” Miller said of what she expected of herself down the stretch. “They [Adams Central] got me nervous but we were going to push through. I know our team, we will finish strong.”
The fourth quarter saw more back and forth, but when Miller dumped the ball off to Powers down low for another high percentage score, the mood certainly shifted again in my mind at least. This was Bluffton’s game to win. They ability to control the ball in the closing minutes, often keeping in the calming hands of senior leader Miller was impressive. The Tigers closed the night out hitting just well enough from the free throw line.
Boots scored a game high 15 points in the win with a strong second half pushing her to the top the balanced scoring effort. Miller, King and Powers each added eight points.
“Those four seniors; Grace, Alyssa, Allison and Jamie [Myers], they really cared and they wanted this bad and they fought for it,” Grau said. “They knew what they were up for, they knew what kind of history they could make. I am proud of them for that.”
In the end, Bluffton has earned themselves a trip back to one of the very toughest regionals in the state. The Class 2A regional at Winamac is no joke. But for Monday night at least, as Coach Grau and his team had to try to find a way to calm their nerves enough to sleep and get up and go back to school the next day, the only thing that matters is a piece of wood shaped like the state of Indiana and a little piece of nylon for them to add to it now growing collection.
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