Kokomo — There weren't many people around the state that thought the Zionsville girls basketball team could win the Kokomo Regional.
But the Class 4A No. 10 Lady Eagles didn't care about that. They believed in one another, put together two impressive performances and won the school's first-ever girls basketball regional title with a 67-50 win over Fort Wayne South.
"We have had three main words for this group since the end of the season — confidence, trust and focus," Zionsville head coach Andy Maguire said. "They couldn't have done a better job. They are so together and so focused and I couldn't be more proud. They deserve all the credit."
Being counted out isn't a new theme for the Eagles.
They graduated an Indiana All-Star in Rachel McLimore. Two other starters from that regional team decided not to play basketball this year. Then their top on-ball defender in Gabby Woodworth tore her ACL four games into the season.
Would Zionsville have loved to have those players? Absolutely. But they also know they are plenty good enough as the currently assembled, and they showed that on Saturday.
"We talk about 'next man up' and being 10-strong," junior Maddie Nolan said. "There were a lot of people doubting us, and I don't think anyone thought we would win the regional except ourselves. That really helped with our confidence."
Saturday night was truly a total team effort for the Eagles.
Nolan led the way with 28 points, with Delaney Richason chipping in 18 and Katey Richason scoring nine.
But seven different players scored, and the Eagles got extremely valuable minutes on the defensive end from Kaiti Huber and Sarah Howell, who hounded the Archers guards all night long.
"Both of them stepped in and did really good things," Maguire said. "It is a team effort. This is a great group of girls. It helps to have players like Maddie, but the players around her are pretty good too."
Early on, it didn't seem like defense was going to be the way the Eagles won the game.
Fort Wayne South hit four first quarter 3-pointers and led 22-17 just six minutes into the game. But the Eagles made some adjustments and that proved to be the difference.
The Archers went 6:34 without scoring, as Zionsville went on a 9-0 run to take the lead. The Eagles led by five at the half, then used an 11-2 run to take a double-digit lead with 1:52 left in the third.
After scoring 22 points in the first 5:45, Fort Wayne South needed 21 minutes to score 22 more. By that time, Zionsville was up 11.
"Our goal was under 55 for them, but after that first quarter it felt like we were going to give up 80," Maguire said. "We tried to press early, and it wasn't very effective. We changed our mindset a little bit, and it paid off."
Fort Wayne South never got closer than nine in the fourth quarter.
Earlier in the day, the Eagles downed second-ranked Carmel 54-49.
The Greyhounds had beaten the Eagles by an average of 21 points in their first two meetings.
How were the Eagles able to overcome that? By using the mantra Maguire had talked about - confidence, trust and focus.
"The third time is the charm," Nolan said. "That is what we have been saying all week. A lot of teams underestimated us I think coming in here. Carmel is a great team, and with our previous games against them people thought we couldn't do it. We just believed in ourselves and that was all we needed.
"The previous two games, we didn't play the way we know we are capable of," Nolan continued. "That left a bad feeling in our stomach. We know we shouldn't have lost by 20 and we didn't want our season to end and didn't want this to be the last time playing with these seniors."
Nolan was a big factor in the reason why. She scored 26 points against the Greyhounds, and coupled with the 28 points in the regional final, had 54 points in the two games.
She has scored 124 points in five postseason games, averaging nearly 25 points again.
"She has been unbelievable," Maguire said. "She is so tough and I can't describe it. I have never seen a girl play as hard as she is playing right now."
The best part is she isn't doing it alone.
Megan Sheridan added 14 points and 11 rebounds against Carmel. Delaney Richason and Katey Richason have been crashing the offensive glass, and Kaylee Riggins helped the Eagles only turn it over 19 times in the regional against two teams that like to press and create havoc.
This is a team on a mission heading into a semi-state meeting with 25-1 Penn on Saturday afternoon at Valparaiso High School.
"I really think they see that can do bigger things," Maguire said. "They really wanted to be the team that won the school's first girls basketball regional title. I think there is more left in the tank, and that is exciting."