GARDNER — After 10 years at the helm at Gardner-South Wilmington and six straight seasons with at least 17 wins, Adam Leigh picked up some hardware to go with his impressive track record by coaching the Panthers to a 53-47 win against Marquette in the championship game of the IHSA Class 1A Gardner-South Wilmington Regional on Thursday.
The regional title win is the first for the Panthers since the 2007-08 season and just the second since 1994-95. It is a fitting crescendo for a Panthers squad that has remained largely unchanged for the past three seasons and is made up entirely of juniors and seniors.
The senior core of Kaitlynn Kavanaugh, Madelyn Storm, Kennedy Fair and Paige Patterson and a strong group of juniors led by Abby Beck cemented their place as one of the best squads in school history by bringing home the regional plaque on their home floor.
“It’s awesome. I’m speechless. I’ve always wanted to win a regional,” Leigh said. “We’ve had some good teams, but unfortunately, we’ve run into some good competition in past years and come up short. We’ve really worked hard the last few years and have really earned this, I think.
“I’m just so proud of the girls, and I really don’t know what else to say right now. I’m just ecstatic.”
The Panthers’ depth came in handy in a major way in their championship win because of a persistent case of foul trouble that dogged them during the contest. Kavanaugh and Fair both fouled out in the fourth quarter and spent an abnormal amount of time on the bench in the second and third, but juniors Kylie Hawks and Grace Halpin filled in nicely as G-SW battled its way to an all-hands victory.
“It’s just that we’re so talented throughout. I don’t have to rely on just one player. I’d say Abby is probably our go-to player, but on any given night someone else can step up and be that leading scorer or the catalyst we need,” Leigh said. “I think it’s our depth that got us here and that the girls have played together for 12 years of their lives and know how to work with each other.
“Kylie Hawks coming off the bench for us played some great minutes, and Grace Halpin did an excellent job on the boards,” he added. “I think our depth really helped us in the end to hang on and seal the deal.”
Despite charging out to a near-instant 11-2 lead and taking a massive 31-11 advantage into the halftime intermission, things got a little hairy for the Panthers down the stretch. Marquette looked like an entirely different team in the second half and found a team-wide hot hand in the second half, making nearly every shot they attempted as they inexorably crept closer and closer.
But a six-point deficit was as close as the Crusaders got as time ran out on their season. Their underwhelming first half was simply too much to overcome.
Despite fouling around the midpoint of the fourth quarter, Kavanaugh’s 16 points were still tops for the Panthers in the victory, and her presence in the paint was crucial for G-SW, as she dominated the glass for as long as she was on the floor.
“It’s amazing. We’ve worked really hard and have been the same team since sophomore year, so finally getting it is really amazing,” Kavanaugh said. “I’m really proud of all of us. We’ve really put in the work.”
Beck was just behind with 14 points, and Hawks came through with nine off the bench.
The Panthers improved to 27-4 on the season with the win, which ties them with the 1981-82 squad for most wins in a season in program history. They will look to become the winningest team of all when they square off with the winner of today’s Earlville Regional championship game in the first round of the Putnam County Sectional next week.