Cats finally lose steam after repeat rallies

Photos By Matthew Busch/The Herald
Coach Ryan Erny consoled senior Allyson Lents in the locker room after Jasper’s season ended with a 59-48 defeat to No. 7 Rushville in Saturday’s Class 3A regional semifinals at Brownstown Central. Jasper trailed by 16 points in the third quarter before inching as close as 48-45 with 5:31 remaining in the game. Lents and fellow senior Shelby Merder ended their careers after helping lead the Cats to the regional four straight years. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

BROWNSTOWN — Play this game three months ago, and it would have been ugly.

It’s the feeling the Jasper girls basketball team gathered about Saturday’s Class 3A regional tussle against an opponent physically big enough and rugged enough to craft large leads in both halves but needed all 32 minutes to repel a Wildcat team that derived pride from a loss that snuffed out its season. No. 7 Rushville pulled past the Wildcats 59-48 in the regional semifinals, and when the Wildcats stepped back to scrutinize the outcome through tear-filled eyes, they found more to like than expected.

“If we would have played them in the beginning of the season, they would have blown us out, just because they were physically stronger and mentally stronger,” Jasper senior Shelby Merder said.

“But the mental toughness of our team has grown throughout the whole season. I’m so proud our team could even compete with these guys. They are a great team.”

Added Jasper coach Ryan Erny: “That just shows the growth of our team, how far they have come to be able to compete and to have a chance to win a game against a team like that.”

Merder said she wouldn’t be surprised to see Rushville in the state finals, and the Lions (22-3) are one game away after flattening Corydon Central 52-32 later Saturday in the championship.
Rushville was breezing toward a similar type of rout at points in the semifinals. The Lions settled for surviving once the Wildcats (15-10) began imposing some of the resolve that became the hallmark of their postseason run.

The genesis of the Cats’ comeback was accomplishing something that was nearly impossible earlier in the game: going to work in the paint. With a broad-shouldered frontline of Sarah Cook, Keragan Niehoff and Kelsi Ash, who all stand 5-foot-10 or taller, the Lions outrebounded the Cats 44-22, stripped the Cats a handful of times before they could release shots and left Erny campaigning with the officials for more whistles in the physical climate.

Jasper’s Emily Jones, left, and Tori Sermersheim, right, tried to reel in a loose ball before it went out of bounds. Jones and Sermersheim will be among three starters returning for the Wildcats next season.

But trailing 48-32, Merder posted up, demanded the ball and scored. Tori Sermersheim spun in the paint for a bucket and later deposited a putback. After Merder stuffed three Lion shots in one possession, Maddie Ubelhor closed the third quarter by swishing a 3-pointer.

Ubelhor’s rebound basket to open the fourth quarter narrowed the margin more, and when Merder drove to the baseline, was bumped and cut off but turned to her left shoulder to feather in a tough jumper, the Cats were within 48-45.

“Rushville, I think, came in thinking they were going to steamroll us. When it got to three points, the look on their face in the fourth quarter was, ”˜Uh oh, we’d better do something here,’” Erny said. “We just kind of ran out of gas there at the end.”

The Cats had chances. But after inching to within three points, they scuffled through seven scoreless possessions and missed three free throws in the stretch. They missed 12 of their 20 free throw tries on the game.

The Lions scored 11 of the game’s final 14 points, and getaway was also contingent on a few transcendent individual efforts. Niehoff, a 47 percent free throw shooter, buried 8-of-9 at the line and totaled 18 points and 10 rebounds. Mikayla Dougherty, averaging 5.9 points per contest, scored 16 on 5-of-6 shooting from the floor. Rushville also picked up 14 points from Mackenzie Campbell.

“(Rushville) came walking in here thinking you know what, this is an easy team. Oh, we got this,’” said Jasper senior Allyson Lents, who totaled five points, four assists and a pair of steals. “We shocked them. We shocked them by only being down by three at a certain point. I’d say we have to be proud of that.”

Even when the Cats lagged by 16 points, Merder said, she read her teammates’ faces and could see the shared sentiment the game wasn’t over. Nor was it in the first half, when Rushville scooted to nine-point leads in each of the first two quarters but Jasper scraped back both times and trailed 32-26 at halftime.

The common thread in the repeated rallies was Merder, who sat for nearly 2 1/2 minutes in the first quarter after accruing her second foul. When Erny reinserted her into the game, he told Merder she wouldn’t be coming out the rest of the game and had to stay on the floor.

“You know when she comes back in that something’s going to happen, and it always did,” said Rushville coach Melissa Marlow, whose inside-minded team has been outrebounded just once this year. “Even though we were up a little bit, I was never comfortable, and when she came in, Merder always made something happen.”

From posting up to slashing to the bucket to draining a 3-pointer, Merder finished with 17 points and tacked on eight rebounds, seven blocks and four assists in the final game of a gilded career.

Jasper’s Shelby Merder slashed past a pair of Rushville defenders as the Wildcat senior produced 17 points, eight rebounds, seven blocked shots and four assists in the final game of her prep career.

“I didn’t want to go out feeling like I could have done more,” said Merder, who finished with 950 career points. “When I got the ball, I looked at the rim and I was like, I need to get it there.”

Ubelhor aided the effort with 14 points, while Sermersheim collected seven points, six rebounds and three steals and Elisabeth Ahlbrand popped off the bench to contribute a putback and block two shots.

Merder and Lents both shared the nagging feeling that they’d have liked to make a regional breakthrough after seeing their season end at this level for four straight years. Erny looked at things from a slightly different lens, telling the Cats after the game that four straight sectional titles haven’t occurred in the program for a long time and adding “you can’t be happier to see that growth from your basketball team” as more players emerged at the end of the year and in the sectional when the Cats wiped out halftime deficits to win all three games.

At the heart of it were Lents and Merder, the survivors from a senior class that started with 14 members. Even when the class dwindled and likely varsity players didn’t stick it out, Lents noted that spirit never waned. And she and Merder grew more bonded.

“We’ve went from 14 all the way down to two,” Lents said. “We just fought through and had great memories with each other and the whole team.”

And while Merder has more basketball ahead of her as she continues her career at Ball State, Erny noted how Lents made the most of what will be her last year of hoops. As a junior, she contributed spot minutes in her first year of varsity ball. As a senior, Lents started every game.

“We can use Allyson Lents as Example A that if you work hard and do the right things and understand the game of basketball, there’s going to be an opportunity for you to play in our program,” Erny said. “I couldn’t be prouder of (Lents and Merder), the way they carried themselves on the court and off the court.”

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