At least on the court.
“There may not have been panic on their faces, but there was on mine,” Norwalk girls basketball coach Brock Manlet said of the final two minutes of Saturday’s Division II sectional championship game vs. Mansfield Madison.
The concern was understandable for Manlet. His team was the heavy favorite — and led by 18 (38-20) with 7:35 left. Yet the Rams had the ball and trailed just 49-45 with under a minute to go — but the Truckers regrouped at the free-throw line in the 53-47 win at Bucyrus High School.
The win gave Norwalk (19-4) — the No. 2 seed in the district — its second straight sectional championship and sixth in program history. It will face No. 3 Upper Sandusky (16-6) at 6:15 p.m. Thursday at Galion High School.
Top-seeded Bellevue (22-1) faces Ontario (13-10) in the second game, with the winners returning Saturday in the district championship.
“That’s a veteran group coming through, having been in that situation before,” Manlet said of his team. “Just proud of them for maintaining their composure and finding a way to get it done. Now it’s a clean slate, we go on to the districts and regroup.”
Kaelyn Harkness put Norwalk up 38-20 to begin the fourth quarter. The Truckers had led by 19 points at three other points in the game, including 29-10 on a Bethany Cring basket to open the second half.
But after just six turnovers in the first half, the Rams (10-14) brought the pressure to a Norwalk offense that struggled to handle it over the final eight minutes. The end result saw the Truckers finish with 23 turnovers, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
Even when the Rams appeared to simply be making the game competitive, the Truckers had the answer. Madison pulled within single digits (46-37) with 2:28 left, and trimmed the deficit to 47-41 with 1:33 left on a 3-pointer by Brooklyn Arnold.
But Norwalk freshman Elena Barber scored 11 seconds later, and was fouled on the play with 1:22 left. She missed the free throw — part of 15 misses (15-of-30) that also led to Madison getting back into the game.
Still, the 49-41 lead with just over a minute to go seemed safe. But the Rams’ Tara Andrews also hit a 3-pointer with 1:11 left. After a missed one-and-one free throw by the Truckers, the Rams split a pair to pull within 49-45 with 44.3 seconds left.
Finally, Norwalk turned to senior Jada Thomas to break the scoring drought of 42 seconds. She was fouled with 40 seconds left, and made both attempts — her only two attempts of the game — to give Norwalk a 51-45 lead.
After Madison came up empty at the other end — the Rams turned it over 30 times — the Truckers’ then got two free throws from Harkness with 18.8 seconds left to make it a 53-45 lead and essentially wrap the game up.
“In the first half we played confident, but by the second half it kind of got to our heads,” said Harkness, who scored a game-high 18 points to go with four rebounds and three steals.
“We didn’t come out strong like we should have, but we found a way, whether it looked ugly or not,” Harkness said. “But I believe that is what good teams do. They find a way, no matter what.”
Though her team was scuffling at the foul line, Harkness said it never entered her mind that she may also struggle. She was 6-of-7 at the line.
“I just know I have my own job and I have to do it for both my team and myself,” she said. “I have to have confidence in that situation and be ready to put it away if that’s what is needed. It was definitely a little pressure, but I didn’t let it get to my head.”
Norwalk led 12-4 after one quarter, then opened the second quarter on a 12-1 scoring run to open up a 24-5 lead with 3:42 left in the first half. That stretch included back-to-back 3s from Harkness, and baskets by Olivia Ward, Jasmine Thomas and Cring.
It was a 27-10 lead at halftime, and 36-20 through three quarters.
“I thought we played well for about three quarters,” Manlet said. “But you have to give Madison credit. They upped the pressure on us and played extremely hard, and for whatever the reason — whether it was the nine-day layoff or just not being in game action — we kind of struggled against their pressure to say the least.
“But credit our girls for finding a way,” he added. “We’re moving on, and that’s the name of the game.”
Jasmine Thomas finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and four steals for Norwalk. Cring added 10 points and four assists, while Ward was everywhere off the bench. She finished with six points, six rebounds and seven steals.
With Saturday’s win, Norwalk is in the district semifinals in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.
“Honestly, it feels great to be back at the districts,” Harkness said. “We’ve won 19 games and are right back where we were last year. That feels good to kind of show anyone who thought we might not be as good of a team.
“We’re just one step closer to being the team we knew we could be from the beginning,” she added.
Norwalk girls sectional championship seasons
1976-77 (12-9): Beat Huron (69-51) and Margaretta (45-32) in sectional; lost 66-36 to AP poll champion Ontario in Class AA district semifinals at Bellevue.
1981-82 (12-11): Beat Clear Fork (54-48) and Ontario (52-36) in sectional; lost to Huron (56-39) in Class AA district semifinals at Colonel Crawford.
1989-90 (5-18): Beat Port Clinton (53-42) and Bellevue (44-43) in sectional. Lost to Willard (60-28) in Div. II district semifinals at Buckeye Central.
2002-03 (11-11): Beat Perkins (47-32) in sectional. Lost to Mansfield Madison (57-41) in Div. II district semifinals at Ontario.
2016-17 (21-6): Beat Clear Fork (69-26) and AP No. 6 Upper Sandusky (60-44) in sectional. Beat AP No. 10 Shelby (71-56) and Bellevue (34-32) in Div. II district semifinals and title game at Willard.
2017-18 (19-4): Beat Mansfield Madison (53-47) in sectional. Face Upper Sandusky in Div. II district semifinal Thursday at Galion.