In a game where both teams shot under 35 percent from the field, free throws mattered.
Unfortunately for Sandusky, the Blue Streaks couldn't find their touch at the charity stripe.
Norwalk (17-6) topped Sandusky for the third time this season, 44-34, to advance to Saturday's Division II sectional championship against Willard (18-3).
“The strategy was to come at them differently,” Sandusky coach Richard Koonce said. “We can't really run our run game and our press and trap game with them. Our personnel just isn't there for that. But in that strategy of attacking, you have to hit your free throws and we didn't. A lot of those were one-and-ones. So if you don't hit the one-and-one you don't get the second shot. Say we go 12-of-20, it's a different ball game, and I think we would have won.”
Norwalk jumped out to an 11-6 lead after the first quarter with six points from Alicia Lortcher.
The Blue Streaks (11-11) responded in the second quarter with an 11-6 run of their own, capped off by a 3-ball from Azyah Smith-Crager to give Sandusky its first and only lead.
The Truckers finished the first half on a 7-2 run that gave them a 23-19 halftime lead.
“Our game plan was similar to what it was the first couple of times that we played them,” Norwalk coach Brock Manlet said. “The main thing was that we didn't want to turn the ball over and give them easy baskets in transition. We did that a little and it let them hang around.”
The Truckers opened up the second half on a 6-2 run on two straight scores from Morgan Turner and another by Jiselle Thomas.
The Truckers also forced the Blue Streaks into several consecutive turnovers.
“In the second half we decided to go to more of a trapping style defense just to give us a spark and maybe give us some easy baskets,” Manlet said. “It turned out that it did. It was big because in tournament time, the closer you are down the stretch, the kids get a little nervous so for us to extend the lead a little bit was huge for our confidence.”
The Blue Streaks kept the game within 6-to-8 points, but couldn't handle Norwalk's stringy defense, led by Makayla Cook, who tallied four steals.
“I thought Makayla played one of her better games of the year,” Manlet said. “She is our captain and she really led by leadership tonight.”
Lortcher finished with 11 points and five rebounds for the Truckers, who will face Willard following the Bellevue-Perkins matchup Saturday night.
Sydnie Fetherolf added seven points and eight boards.
Norwalk shot 28 percent from the field through four quarters and went 11-of-24 from the free throw line.
“Saturday is going to be tough,” Manlet said on facing Willard. “The last time we played them we struggled to shoot the ball and then we made a run in the fourth quarter to get close. They are a good team but they are bigger than we are so we are going to have to use our quickness and create a more up-tempo type of game to allow us to get into transition to get us some easy baskets.”
Sandusky was led by Azyah Smith-Crager with 17 points, a steal and four rebounds, while Dorreesha Green had seven points, three steals amd four rebounds.
“I am still proud of the girls,” Koonce said while reflecting on Sandusky's winning season. “If you check the record book, I doubt we've had a winning season in the last 20 years. The people who are counting us out, let them keep counting us out because we are going to improve upon this season and be better next season. There is going to be a lot of offseason work, particularly on free throws.”
The Streaks connected on just 3-of-14 free throws and shot 33 percent from the field.
“It was a good game but in that last quarter, we couldn't really come up with the intensity that we needed to pull it out,” Koonce said. “It's a learning lesson and we are laying the foundation. I feel good about that.”