INDIANAPOLIS — The Anderson girls basketball team believed in itself when few others did. And that was almost enough to upset one of the toughest opponents in the nation.
Lawrence North (23-1), ranked No. 10 in USA Today's national poll and No. 1 in Class 4A, needed nearly all 32 minutes to put away the Lady Tribe, 56-54, in the semifinals of the Decatur Central regional.
"It was hard fought," Anderson coach Chad Cook said, fighting back his emotions. "I couldn't be more proud."
The Indians (19-5) held a one-point lead at the half, but the Wildcats made it disappear with a 7-0 run to start the third quarter. By the time Lawrence North extended its lead to 47-34 with the first basket of the fourth quarter, Anderson appeared to be down for the count.
But the Lady Tribe quickly got off the mat.
Anderson scored 10 unanswered points to again make it a one-possession game, and the contest remained tight the rest of the way.
Lamina Cooper's steal and basket gave the Wildcats some breathing room and a 50-46 lead with less than four minutes to play. Chelsea Bentley, playing for the first time since the sectional opener after rehabbing an injured ankle, hit a pair of free throws to pull the Indians back within two.
Then Lawrence North's defense again stepped to the forefront. The Wildcats forced 23 Anderson turnovers, but the Lady Tribe coughed the ball up just three times in the final period. Two of those miscues, however, came on possessions when Anderson had an opportunity to tie or take the lead.
"It's hard to look back and say what if?" Cook said, referencing myriad possibilities the Indians had to change the game. "But if you have to look back and say what if, it's better than not competing."
Lauren Dickerson hit a jumper to put Lawrence North back in front by four with just over a minute remaining, and Cooper had an opportunity to extend the lead at the free-throw line with 50.8 seconds to play.
She missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Jacie Dickerson came down with one of her team-high eight rebounds. Da'Sha Boyd, who finished with nine points, made the Wildcats pay at the other end with a 3-pointer to make it a one-point deficit.
Jordan Hankins made a pair of free throws with 31.5 seconds remaining to push Lawrence North's lead to 54-51. And when Anderson failed to convert on the ensuing possession, Hankins essentially put the game away with two more free throws with nine seconds left.
Anderson's Dabriona Williams, who finished with a game-high 17 points, made a 3-pointer just before the buzzer for the final margin.
The Lady Tribe was at full strength for the first time in weeks, with Bentley and Ania Daniels returning from injuries sustained during the sectional. Bentley finished with nine points and two rebounds. Daniels suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter but returned to hit a key 3-pointer in the final period for her only points of the game.
"For those two girls, it was their first game back, and they didn't have any time to prepare," Cook said. "Just jump right back in against the No. 1 team. To come out and play like they did, I couldn't be more proud."
As has been its custom, Anderson's performance was a total team effort. Point guard Samia Carter finished with seven points and at least as many assists, consistently driving into the lane to create opportunities for herself and her teammates.
Kez'Anique Gosha scored four points off the bench and provided timely defensive help, and Shantaz Goolsby added a boost of energy with a brief appearance in the second half.
The Lady Tribe loses six seniors — including Bentley, Boyd, Carter and Gosha — but Cook wasn't focused on the future.
Instead, he was thankful for the efforts of his players this year.
"I've always said the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," Cook said. "This team as a whole is so much better than the sum of its parts. We played that way for 24 games. We came up three games short (of a state championship), though. I hate it (coming to and end), but I am so proud."