ALEXANDRIA — As freshmen two years ago, Northlake Christian’s Kyren Whittington and Natalie Newberry didn’t know any better. Playing with reckless abandon in their first year of varsity girls basketball, the first after the select-nonselect split in LHSAA championships, the duo found themselves on a squad that were owners of a No. 1 Division III seed that eventually took home a state title.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Newberry said. “Just going out a playing, that’s our mentality.”
But when the pressure started to heap on a year ago, with the Wolverines again the top overall seed entering the postseason, coach Aaron Agresta noticed that they started to think about the gravity of the situation. In part, it led to a quarterfinals upset to where the team missed 18 free throws and lost to No. 8 seed and eventual finalists St. Mary’s 62-57 in overtime.
In the second quarter of Wednesday’s 59-49 semifinal win against No. 3 seed and defending Division III champs St. Katharine Drexel (21-8), Agresta’s squad looked stuck in first gear once again. After an early-back-and-forth battle with the Yellow Jackets, Northlake Christian (24-4) went cold from the field and went four minutes without a bucket as St. Katharine Drexel built a nine-point advantage.
After Whittington connected on a transition layup, Taylor Vaughn countered with a 3-pointer on the other end, boosting the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 10 points.
“From there, I had planned to spread the floor and take the air out of the ball, but the communication just wasn’t there,” St. Katharine Drexel coach Terry Wilson said. “But you have to give them credit. They played hard, but I feel like we were the better team.”
Agresta saw the lights turn on as DeNina Sorapuru knocked down a corner 3-pointer with under a minute to go in the first half, part of her team’s 6-0 run heading into the break that cut St. Katharine Drexel’s lead to 25-21 — a deficit the Wolverines felt they could visualize chipping away at in the locker room at halftime.
Newberry’s 3-pointer with 45 seconds left in the third quarter helped keep the Wolverines within striking distance, down 38-35 heading into the fourth, when all the sudden the tables turned in the span of a few seconds. Whittington snagged a steal and drove coast-to-coast for a lay-in, followed by a turnover on the inbounds by the Yellow Jackets, which the junior guard, who led all scorers with 27 points, turned into the go-ahead bucket for a 39-38 lead.
The pair of turnovers turned into baskets would lay the foundation for an 21-2 run that spanned more than six minutes, aided by the Wolverines’ ability to get to the free throw line and connect. They finished 17-of-32 from the charity stripe in the win — 22 of those attempts coming in the fourth quarter, where they shot 12-of-22 as a team.
For the Yellow Jackets, though the loss was tough to swallow — especially knowing they owned a double-digit lead at one point — Wilson noted last year’s title was a bit of a surprise, a squad that overachieved on the timeline he’d laid out for their future, especially for a team that graduates just one senior this year.
“When you’re young like that and do as well as we did and whenever there’s success, you have to pay the price,” he said. “We paid the price today.”
Emmia Johnson led the Yellow Jackets with 16 points, and Taylor Vaughn followed with nine points and nine boards while Tyra Vaughn grabbed 11 rebounds and six points. Newberry followed Whittington with 18 points, and KeraGrace Watts registered 10 rebounds and four points for the Wolverines.
Northlake Christian will now face top-seeded St. Thomas Aquinas in Saturday’s Division III title game at 10 a.m. at the Rapides Coliseum, a rematch of the Wolverines’ 52-46 championship win two years ago.