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Pace, Lehner lead Knights to victory

Southwood's MaKenna Pace dribbles downcourt during a fastbreak in the first quarter of Wednesday's contest against Blackford.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

It’s no secret that the Southwood girls’ basketball team will be led this year by its senior backcourt of Erin Lehner and MaKenna Pace. Wednesday’s season opener proved how potent that backcourt could be.

Pace scored or assisted on all but one of the Knights’ 16 first-quarter points, Lehner pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds and the two combined for 34 points, powering Southwood to a home win over Blackford, 52-38.

“They’re more than likely going to be our two leading scorers,” Knight head coach Chad West said of Pace and Lehner. “We know they are going to, on most night, carry the load. It’s going to who is going to step up and give us those two, those four, those six, those eight (points). Can we get multiple people to do it to maybe pick off a win we’re not supposed to get? Erin was probably getting close to 10 rebounds, too. She had a lot of big rebounds. She’s not afraid to fight underneath there.”

The Knights could hardly have asked for a better start to the season in the opening quarter. After falling behind 2-0 to a layup from Olivia Waters, Southwood scored the next 22 points of the contest. Pace opened Southwood’s scoring with a three before setting up Lehner for a basket.

Pace would knock down a three and hit a free throw before Lehner connected with her own three-pointer, extending the lead to 12-2. Free throws from Pace and Sydney Helfin preceded a three-pointer from Ella Haupert to give the Southwood a 17-2 lead after one quarter.

“It was mainly doing what we’ve been doing in practice and that’s just trying to just play free,” West said of the first quarter. “I don’t think we called a single set in the first quarter. It was just get out and play.

“I was actually elated that we had that lead because I could just tell based on their JV, based on their warm-up...we’re not going to just walk out here and win one. So, I told them we need a good warm-up and we have to be ready to go and apparently they listened because we came out white-hot. We defended well, our best rebounding quarter was the first quarter. We really got off to a hot start, thankfully.”

The lead grew more early in the second quarter on a three-pointer from Bailey Wyatt and a basket from Helfin as the Knight advantage topped out at 22-2.

From there, the Bruins slowly clawed their way back into the contest, turning the Knights over on defense to lead to easy baskets on offense. The biggest sequence of the half for Blackford saw Helen Whitesell connect with a three-pointer before being fouled after the shot. The junior knocked down both ensuing free throws for a five-point possession, cutting a 29-12 lead down to 29-17.

The lead continued to shrink after Waters and Rea Harding each scored to close the quarter, sending Blackford into the half down justs 29-21. Blackford scored the final nine points of the quarter and outscored the hosts 19-7 after the Knights built the 20-point lead.

“That was the halftime speech was ‘Ladies, we didn’t need a blowout. A blowout on night number one doesn’t do us any good,’” West said. “We needed them to pressure us. We needed them to make us look a little sloppy just to help remind us there’s still things to work on. It’s nice to have some of those turnovers and feel that heat.”

The Knights refocused in the second half, though not before seeing the gap closed even further to six points after Blackford opened with a basket. The lead would never dip below six points and a 6-2 spurt in response helped restore the double-digit lead for the Knights.

Lehner, who scored nine of her 17 points in the second half, knocked in a three-pointer before the third-quarter buzzer to send the Knights into the final frame up 42-27.

Blackford mounted a brief run in the fourth, cutting the margin down to 42-34 after scoring seven consecutive points to open the period. A basket from Pace lifted the lead back to double digits and the margin only dipped below ten once more as the Knights iced the game away at the line, finishing the game on a 10-4 run.

“We got contributions from role players which is something we know is going to have to happen,” West said of the win. “We’re very confident in our four seniors that they’re going to give us consistency. It’s who is going to help them. Tonight, Bailey (Wyatt) hit a big shot for us, Aleia (Sweet) came in and gave us fantastic minutes and hit two big shots. It was really nice to see all of those things we really wanted...that factored into digging out a good win.”

After Pace and Lehner’s 17 points apiece, Helfin chipped in eight as the Knights’ three seniors on the evening tallied 42 of the 52 points. However, it wasn’t just the statistical output from the seniors that left West impressed on the evening.

“The best thing was the leadership from some of our seniors,” he said. “There was a timeout called when they were closing the gap late in the second quarter and I really didn’t need to say anything. The seniors were talking about ‘Ladies, we just need to relax, make sure we’re not yelling at each other. Keep it simple.’ All those things I’ve been preaching for a while, it’s apparently finally sunk in.”

Southwood will be back in action next Tuesday at home against Pioneer.