COLUMBUS

Kevin Stuckmeyer had seen enough practices and games to understand the true heart of his Center Grove girls basketball team.

It was on display throughout the high-drama fourth quarter of Saturday night’s championship game of the Columbus North regional.

And then, just like that, it was broken.

A slightly off-balance shot 10 feet from the basket by Bedford North Lawrence guard McKenzie Messmore fell through the net with five-tenths of a second remaining in the Stars’ electrifying 46-44 victory.

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Stunned and saddened, Trojans players and coaches slowly walked off the Memorial Gymnasium court, their season over with a record of 21-7.

“I told the girls that I don’t know that you’re going to be able to have a (Center Grove) team match them for a while,” Stuckmeyer said. “I hope we do, and I hope we have others who bought into what we believe in and doing it the right way.

“Cass (Hardin), Amy (Davis) and Karinna (Frankel), you couldn’t ask for a better senior group in about everything that I could have discussed and talked about.”

Center Grove never led in the game. But after trailing 39-29 at 6:44 of the fourth, the Trojans staged a furious rally to tie it on junior point guard Ella Thompson’s left handed mini-hook off glass with 10.1 seconds left.

Following a BNL timeout, the Stars had 9.5 seconds left to go the full length of the court. They did, got a shot off and are headed for this weekend’s semistate in Jasper.

It wasn’t the desired conclusion, but rather an abrupt end to a special season. Qualifying for the regional final was the program’s deepest postseason run since making it to semistate in 2006-07.

The Purdue-bound Hardin capped her brilliant high school career with 14 points, finishing second on the program’s all-time scoring list (1,306). Davis, a forward, added 10 points and Frankel, the starting center, chipped in four.

“We’re like a family. We play together. We play for each other,” said Davis, who scored eight of her points in the final quarter. “We know that if we trust each other that we’re going to come back.

“It’s definitely a special bunch of girls. We came into the season not knowing how the team was going to be. We had a new coach, we lost five seniors. If everything could go different, it happened.”

And yet the Trojans, riding the quick-flick long-range shooting of Hardin, athleticism of starting guards Thompson and junior Ella Utterback and everyone else knowing their roles, were within an eyelash of being one of the final 4A teams playing.

Hardin exits the program with numerous career standards. However, the friends and special memories she accumulated over the past four seasons are even more special.

“I love my teammates. I wouldn’t have wanted to play with anyone else the past four years, even seniors who are already graduated like Lauren Rau and Allison Utterback,” Hardin said. “This team, I love all of them and would do anything for them.

“We definitely stepped up. We fought. We did everything we could. We had the energy and momentum. Emma did everything we asked her to. She didn’t foul her, and McKenzie Messmore made a great shot. Props to her. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

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Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at mbeas@dailyjournal.net.