"Water finds its level."
That’s been the go-to quote all season long for the Franklin girls basketball team. Loosely translated, it means that you can only keep a team with as much firepower as the Grizzly Cubs possess at bay for so long before they get the better of you.
On Saturday night, Center Grove kept the Class 4A sectional title game between the two county rivals close for three quarters, but Franklin’s 3-point shooting in the fourth proved to be the difference in a 45-36 triumph.
The Grizzly Cubs (20-2), who earned their first sectional championship since 2008, will play Castle in the semifinal round of the Bedford North Lawrence Regional.
"They’re the best defensive team in the state," Franklin coach Josh Sabol said of Center Grove. "Year after year after year — it’s not going to be easy. But we kept doing what we do, which is shoot the basketball, and when you have that type of confidence on the court and you know that this is what we do better than anybody, the moment wasn’t too big for them."
A 3-pointer from freshman Scarlett Kimbrell was the start of Center Grove’s ending in the fourth. Kuryn Brunson followed with a driving layup to make it 33-26 with 5:28 left, and after a Trojan free throw cut it to six, Franklin guards Lauren Klem and Kyra Baker knocked down consecutive 3s from the same spot in the right corner to stretch it to 39-27.
Kimbrell, who finished with 14 points, knocked down one more deep ball at the 2:12 mark, and the Grizzly Cubs were able to make enough free throws to close it out.
"We definitely had better ball movement," Kimbrell said. "We sped up the passing and didn’t hold it for long; the ball didn’t get sticky like it did in the first half, so shots started to fall in the fourth quarter."
It was Brunson, though, who was the driving force for Franklin for much of the night. The junior scored a game-high 20 points, including 14 in the middle two quarters to lead her team back from a rocky start.
The Grizzly Cubs got the first bucket of the game but then went dry for six minutes and five seconds afterward, allowing the Trojans to build up an 11-3 advantage by the early moments of the second quarter. Six first-period turnovers, mostly unforced, prevented Franklin from getting untracked.
Brunson finally enabled the Grizzly Cubs to find their footing. She personally outscored the Trojans 8-1 over the final 2:07 of the half to put the home team back on top, 19-18, heading into the intermission.
In the third, Brunson stayed hot, scoring six more points, but the Trojans (15-11) kept up in large part due to freshman Aubrie Booker, who came up with a pair of three-point plays to immediately answer Brunson buckets. Ella Hobson added a layup just before the quarter ended to send Center Grove into the final period down by just two, 28-26.
Water, though, found its level in the end.
"We can score in bunches, so when we get down five, 10, it doesn’t really faze us," Brunson said. "We just have to play our game and dominate. It’s what we do. It’s what we practice, it’s how hard we work, and it just came. It fell into our hands, and we took it."
Booker finished with 10 points for the Trojans, while Mary Wilson and Audrey Annee added six apiece. Klem had six for Franklin.
Center Grove says goodbye to a 1,000-point scorer in Wilson, who will play at the University of Denver next winter, as well as fellow seniors Emily McWilliams and Aili Lothamer — but Trojans coach Kevin Stuckmeyer feels good about his young returning players, who learned on the job this season.
"They had to be key cogs here sooner than you would necessarily expect," he said, "but credit them to step up and do that throughout the year. Aubrie led the way with that, and Ella Hobson and Emily Karr and Audrey Annee did a lot of that. … They’ve been seasoned now, and you can’t replace experience."
The Grizzly Cubs, meanwhile, face a new set of challenges this coming weekend — but with his team set to embark on a celebratory bus ride through downtown Franklin, Sabol wasn’t in a rush to do any advance scouting on Saturday night.
"We’re going to enjoy this tonight, and tomorrow we’re going to get ready for the regional," he said. "Our plan is to go down there and play our game — and I’ll be honest with you, our girls, they play with a lot of confidence and I expect that to continue."