GARDNER — When bitter rivals meet, everything about that game is just different. The game becomes more physical, the stakes become higher, and the crowd is bigger and more boisterous than usual.
That was no different Thursday, when Beecher went into Gardner to take on River Valley Conference rival Gardner-South Wilmington with its mind on leaving with an outright RVC title. A win would just do that, and a Panthers victory meant a split atop the conference standings.
In all big games, there always is one person who shines brightest and rises to the occasion when their team needs them most. On Thursday, the brightest star was Bobcats’ sophomore Abby Shepard, who scored a game-high 24 points in a 50-42 Beecher victory.
The Bobcats won at least a share of the conference for the seventh straight year and ended the regular season at 25-6 (12-0). The Panthers, who tied Beecher for the conference crown each of the past two seasons, saw their regular season end at 25-4 (10-2).
“It is awesome. I would say [G-SW coach] Adam [Leigh] would think the same thing, that the No. 1 goal is to always win conference,” Beecher coach Adam Keen said. “And we know it always has to go through G-SW.”
Knowing how big the stakes were Thursday night, Shepard knew she had to get out of her own head in order to help push the Bobcats past their biggest competition of the season. In the Bobcats’ victory against the Panthers last month, Shepard spent most of the game in foul trouble.
“I was nervous [coming in]; I knew last game we played them, I got into my head really bad,” Shepard said. “This time around, I wasn’t in my head, and I shot a lot of shots yesterday and was like, ‘OK, OK, I feel it,’ and I was dropping them [shots] tonight. It felt really good.”
With the thundering Panthers crowd cheering against her and her squad, Shepard continually was able to silence the crowd with big shots.
“Last year, we lost [an outright championship] here, and we know their fans get in our heads, and we know everything about this place; we know we needed to win,” Shepard said. “So, coming out with a win really helps. Throughout the season we built up to this game.”
This led Shepard to let out an emotional scream at the final buzzer when they were crowned conference champs.
“I wasn’t going to push it; I didn’t want to get in their heads and want them to hate me,” Shepard said. “I got a little loud at the end, but we played a phenomenal game.”
Both teams left everything on the floor in a hard-nosed physical game. The heavyweight matchup led to there being more than 20 team fouls combined, as well as 10 lead changes and four ties throughout.
Before the final stretch of the fourth quarter, neither team was able to get a bigger lead than two possessions. The game came down to the final two minutes. That’s when Beecher was able to extend its lead by outscoring the Panthers 6-2.
Nonetheless, Panthers coach Adam Leigh was pleased with how his team gave it their all.
“When we went into the locker room, I just talked to the girls how proud I am of their effort,” Leigh said. “As a coach, you look for a team that really hustles, and they worked hard all game. I don’t like to make excuses for my team, but when you look at it, we just didn’t make a lot of shots.”
Being able to overcome adversity against a team that has had Beecher’s number in the past perhaps will give them a mental edge as they prepare for regionals.
“This win is something that I think will be a good mental boost going into the playoffs,” Keen said. “Having a playoff type game here really sets us up for next week.”
Shepard hit five shots from the 3-point line to help accumulate her 24 points. Senior Kaylie Sippel added 14 points, 10 of which came in the second half. Rhiannon Saller had nine points and six boards.
Abby Beck led the way for the Panthers in their defeat. She scored a team-high 12 points, 10 of them coming from the free-throw line. Kennedy Fair added eight points.
Both teams have byes in the first round of their respective IHSA regionals and will be in action Tuesday. The Panthers will be at home at 6 p.m. against the winner of Monday’s game between St. Anne and Grant Park. The Bobcats will be at the IHSA Class 2A Reed-Custer Regional, where they will take on the winner of Monday’s game between Manteno and Seneca at 7:30 p.m.