CROWN POINT – Karissa McLaughlin held the Class 4A semistate championship nameplate in her hand, securely, talking with family, friends and reporters. After the initial, obligatory celebration, she had no reason to hold it aloft or wave it around.
Semistate was never the destination.
The Homestead High School girls basketball team’s tough schedule, the demanding practices, the season with a target on their backs was put in place for one ultimate purpose – a state title.
Homestead’s dominate 63-40 win over Northfield on Saturday at Crown Point earned the Spartans (27-2) a trip to the state finals, where they’ll play Pike (24-3) at 8:15 p.m. next Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.
McLaughlin mentions being fortunate, and that’s a nice, genuine touch of humble spirit for the best player in the state on what looks like the best team.
But the Spartans didn’t reach this point by sheer good fortune. They’ve worked. And they’ve been tested, most notably by a pair of overtime losses and the helter-skelter finish in their regional title win over Carmel (avenging an earlier loss).
The most impressive aspect has to be Homestead’s work ethic.
It can be difficult to maintain that drive when you have enough talent to beat a lot of opponents with a halfway effort. Homestead never displays a halfway effort.
Attribute some of that drive to McLaughlin, who brings intensity to games and practices that can’t help but be emulated if her teammates want to keep up. Attribute some to coach Rod Parker, who has established the right mix of pushing his players and encouraging them to enjoy the ride.
Homestead took down Northridge with a combination of overwhelming talent, willpower and energy. Mix those three, and it’s almost unbeatable. Remember, both Homestead losses this season were in overtime.
“You can nitpick a few things with free throws (7-of-14) and other stuff, but the intensity was there,” Parker said. “What’s important for us, we competed hard. We played well for 32 minutes. We talk about the schedule we played the last four years, the tournament experience we’ve had. We’re confident, ready to play and comfortable in this environment and this stage.”
Homestead seniors McLaughlin, Madisen Parker, Jazmyne Geist and Teryn Kline have led the way to a second state-championship game in three years. Homestead lost to Columbus North 62-56 in the state championship two years ago.
Those players knew they had the talent, and some strong upcoming younger players, to make another run.
Rod Parker knew it, too, which is why he built a difficult schedule of the toughest teams in Indiana and beyond. The schedule included many weekends when Homestead would face a local team on Friday and then travel to a talented out-of-area or out-of-state team on Saturday.
“I told the girls, ‘This schedule is not designed to go undefeated, it’s designed to get us back to Bankers Life,’ ” Rod Parker said.
Homestead went on a 10-0 run after Northridge had tied the game 11-11 in the first quarter. From the end of the second quarter to McLaughlin’s three-pointer to open the third quarter, Homestead went on a 16-2 run. McLaughlin hit 5-of-10 three-pointers en route to a game-high 30 points.
The score was 41-21 early in the third, and the rest of the game was a formality.
“Defensive stops were a big part of winning this game, and our energy level,” Geist said after scoring 15 points with 13 rebounds. “Coach told us to bring energy, and that’s what helped us win this game.”
Geist was especially effective inside. The importance of her presence was amplified when she fouled out with six minutes left to play in the regional title game. She found herself frustrated as Carmel came back and she was unable to help. She channeled some of that determination into a strong game from the opening tip Saturday.
“Jazmyne got involved in the game,” Rod Parker said. “And Karissa was Karissa tonight. She played like Miss Basketball. Karissa’s a great player. She shot it well. She made big-time plays, made great passes, did what she needed to do. I’m happy with the way we competed.”
Parker should be happy. The Spartans competed like a team on a mission. It's a mission with only one satisfying finish, and that's a state championship.
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.