Twenty-four years is a long time.
Nobody on Franklin’s current girls basketball team was alive, or even a gleam in their parents’ eye, back in 1998, the last time a Johnson County basketball team earned the right to play for a state championship.
Those who do remember the last local squads to go the distance — Franklin’s girls, who lost to West Lafayette in the 1998 Class 3A final, and Center Grove’s girls, who won the single-class crown in 1996 — have an appreciation for how rare an occurrence this is around here.
Now that the Grizzly Cubs have punched their ticket to Gainbridge Fieldhouse, it’s time to take a look at what to expect from Saturday’s game. A short list of items — a starting five, if you will — to keep an eye on when Franklin meets up with Noblesville:
1. Throwing Shade
Any conversation about the Millers — and we’ll be continuing that conversation throughout the week — has to begin with junior guard Ashlynn Shade, the most ballyhooed girls basketball player in Indiana since Skylar Diggins was named Gatorade’s national player of the year in 2009. Already verbally committed to the University of Connecticut, the 5-foot-10 Shade leads Noblesville in scoring (20.8 per game), rebounds (8.6), assists (4.2) and steals (3.6). For all of Franklin’s talent up and down the roster, Shade will be the best player on the floor on Saturday night — and when a big game like this comes down to crunch time, that’s a powerful card to be able to play.
2. Deep six
While Noblesville has the best player in this game, it’s quite possible that the Grizzly Cubs have Nos. 2 through 7. Seniors Ashlyn Traylor and Kuryn Brunson could both end up being Indiana All-Stars; sophomore starters Erica Buening, Scarlett Kimbrell and Lauren Klem are all versatile talents who have done nothing but win since they were in elementary school; and almost every team in the country would love to have a bench option like junior Adelyn Walker. Franklin will have to beat Noblesville by committee, but they have the depth and balance to do just that.
3. Reading the room
Both teams prefer an up-tempo style of play — Franklin leads all Class 4A teams with 67.86 points per game, while Noblesville isn’t far behind at 64.5 — and they both like to use aggressive defense to fuel their offense. Both the Grizzly Cubs and Millers average more than 13 steals per contest. That aggressiveness is a double-edged sword, though; while one team could gain an advantage by winning the turnover battle, there’s also the risk of foul trouble depending on how tightly the officials are calling the game. Whichever side can do a better job of reading the referees early on and adjusting accordingly will have a major advantage.
4. Something in common
Franklin and Noblesville have shared quite a bit of common ground in terms of scheduling — and while the Millers have the edge in overall schedule strength (toughest in the state, according to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings), the Grizzly Cubs have an advantage in terms of common opponents. Both teams lost to Westfield in December, but Franklin also owns wins over a pair of teams (Zionsville and Bedford North Lawrence) that defeated Noblesville. The Grizzly Cubs also beat Hamilton Southeastern by a 74-57 margin earlier in the season, while the Millers prevailed by a slimmer 66-64 margin.
5. Breaking new ground
Noblesville won a single-class state title in 1987 and made the final four in each of the next three years, but this is the Millers’ deepest venture into the tournament since they lost the 1988 title game to Fort Wayne Snider. Current coach Donna Buckley has won 207 games in her 14 years at the school, but this season represents her first trip past the regional round. Likewise, Franklin had gone 23 years between semistate appearances before making it last year — so there isn’t a player on either team that has the benefit of previous big-game experience on that downtown Indy floor. Which side will do a better job of responding to the pressure?