But in the minutes before all the Homestead happiness Saturday night, pressure closed in on the Spartans with an intensity most of us can't even imagine.
Homestead led by 19 points with 6:18 left. You know that chant, “Start the bus”? That’s what everyone in the gym thought. This one was over. The last six minutes would be a formality.
But the game of basketball has a way of turning on a dime. Big leads disappear. Pressure mounts. Anxiety attacks.
That’s what happened, and then some. By the time Carmel’s Amy Dilk converted a three-point play with 1:40 left, Homestead’s lead was down to a single point. Carmel outscored Homestead 24-6 in less than five minutes, cutting a 48-29 Homestead lead to 54-53.
“At the timeout, I looked at my seniors, Madisen (Parker), Karissa (McLaughlin), we got this,” Homestead coach Rod Parker said. “This is your game to win. We’ll get the ball in your hands, get to the line, take us home.”
Down the stretch, they did that. McLaughlin and Parker hit free throws, as did another senior, Teryn Kline, and a sophomore, Haley Swing. The Spartans found some defensive stops, with Parker switching to a zone to try to cut off Dilk’s crafty driving ability.
The lead dwindled. It never evaporated.
“It was our maturity and experience,” McLaughlin said. “You have to stay poised and stay calm. Even though they made a huge run, I said ‘Calm down, we’re in it. We have the lead. Play like we have the lead.' ”
The win avenged one of two regular-season losses for Homestead (27-2), but more importantly kept the Spartans’ hopes for a state title run alive. This was a brutal regional. Homestead, ranked No. 2 in Class 4A, had to beat No. 4 Zionsville in the afternoon and No. 5 Carmel at night. It was a tough task, even when it looked so easy late in the fourth quarter.
“For seven quarters, we played absolutely fantastic defense,” Rod Parker said. “The kids laid it on the line.”
McLaughlin finished with 19 points, six assists and six rebounds. Parker scored 15 points and Jazmyne Geist scored 12 points with six rebounds. Swing scored nine points with a team-high nine rebounds.
A feeling of satisfaction combined with relief swept the team as Parker hit the final two free throws to seal the win.
No one was more relieved than Geist.
Geist was a strong force inside, but she made one mistake that kicked off Carmel’s comeback. She was called for her fourth foul with 6:02 left. That wasn't the mistake. It was her reaction to the call.
“I didn’t really like the call, so I mumbled something,” Geist said. “(The referee) didn’t like that, obviously, so he T’d me up.”
Geist was hit with a technical foul, which also counted as a personal foul, which meant she had fouled out of the game. That was a major blow to Homestead, both offensively and defensively.
Carmel hit four free throws and maintained possession, scoring again to cut six points off Homestead’s lead on that one play.
“It was a momentum shift because she was out of the game, and we couldn’t go back to her,” Rod Parker said. “They knocked down four free throws and scored off the inbounds play. That’s something we’ll have to address. She knows better. Fortunately, we bounced back.”
Geist had a different role after the mistake. She had to swallow her pride and lend moral support.
“It was very difficult,” Geist said. “You have to be a good teammate. If I’m down, they were going to get down. So I had to stay positive and keep my energy up.”
The fact Homestead was able to withstand the fury of Carmel’s comeback bodes well for the team moving forward.
That wasn’t just crunch time.
That was a steamroller of emotion and pressure to deal with, and fight through.
“We have a really mature team,” Madisen Parker said. “We have a good group of seniors and a lot of underclassmen who gel well together. Coming into this game, we had a lot of experience. When it got to that fourth quarter, everyone was able to rely on each other and trust each other.”
When Parker went to the free throw line to seal the win, she told herself what she tells her teammates: Take a deep breath.
She drained two free throws. Homestead exhaled. At last.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.