January 5, 2012 at 8:48 a.m.
The North Branch girls basketball team came oh-so-close to grabbing the Simley Holiday Tournament championship last week a few days after celebrating Christmas.
They opened the brackets against a quick and athletic St. Paul Central team, but North Branch's gameplan reigned supreme over the talented Governers in the first half. The Vikes were making the extra pass to the open girl, and those girls were sinking their open shots. "We ran our offense and were doing a great job moving the basketball," Head Coach Dan Schindler said. "Our shots were really falling and we took care of the basketball."
In fact, the Vikings protected the ball like a lioness guarding her cubs. They turned the rock over only three times in the first half as they bounced out to a 37-26 lead over Johnson. "We played a very good first half against Johnson," Schindler said. "I think it was our best of the season."
Things quickly unraveled in the second half, however. Point guard Haley Huset, who had eight points in the first half, wasn't able to come back out for the second half because of an injury. "That's just part of the game, but St. Paul really turned up the pressure too," Schindler noted.
The Governers chopped away at the lead and eventually took it from North Branch by being more aggressive on defense. The Vikes went from meticulously careful with the ball to unusually sloppy as they turned it over 13 times in the second stanza.
Although St. Paul Central never really ran away with the game after they took the lead, they didn't let North Branch get to within a real dangerous distance for the most part. "We didn't have the people we needed to step up their game and really want the ball," Schindler said after the loss. "I think it was a good learning experience for us. We can fix the mistakes we made and it should make us better."
The Governers took the opening contest of the tournament by a mark of 58-54. Sarah Lekson led the team with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Kallie Grote and Erin Reber both added 10 points and Huset chipped in eight. Annette Olson had four points and eight boards.
North Branch 42, St. Croix Lutheran 38
Already starting to show signs of fatigue after the extended break and their second game in as many days, the North Branch girls battled through an ice cold shooting night to snatch a victory away from the St. Croix Lutheran Crusaders in the second round of the Simley Tourney.
The game was a close contest all the way through. North Branch enjoyed a slight lead most of the first half and went into the locker room up by four points over the Crusaders. In the second half, Lutheran stepped up their game to another level and took a five point lead themselves.
"We were playing a good game, but we just struggled shooting the basketball," Schindler said. "We shot less than 25 percent for the game, and that is usually going to mean a loss."
Despite their struggles from the field, the Vikings made up for it by shooting well from the free throw line, and they were getting there often. They hit some key free throws down the stretch, including some big ones by Grote and Jessica Merchant. "Our goal each game is to always win the free throw line [battle] and it won the game for us against St. Croix Lutheran," Schindler said.
The Vikes held the Crusaders at bay and won by a tally of 42-38.
Although Merchant and Emily Trunk combined to only score 10 points, Schindler really was pleased with their energy and spark off the bench. "I thought it was a real nice game for both of them, and they gave us some real energy in the second half," he said.
Nobody scored in double digits for North Branch, but their balance was a thing of beauty. Five girls had over five points and eight girls got in on the scoring action. Grote led the way with eight points. Lekson had seven points and 11 rebounds. Huset, returning from her injury, had six points and five steals, and Merchant and Reber chipped in six each. Olson had another big rebounding day, grabbing 10 to go along with three points.
North Branch 40, St. Paul Como Park 34
By the third day of the tournament, the wear and tear was really starting to show for the Vikings. Como Park featured a quick, penetrating point guard, and she wreaked havoc on North Branch in the first half.
The Cougars, who were 4-4 coming into the game, jumped out to a 26-21 lead at halftime because of their guard's ability to crash the lane. But, that all changed after a quick intermission. "We made a few halftime adjustments, and I was really pleased with our defensive effort in the second half," Schindler said in a massive understatement.
After giving up 13 points to the guard and 26 overall in the first half, North Branch held her scoreless in the second half, and the team to a paltry eight points. It also helped that North Branch started crashing the boards more effectively after a lackluster effort in the first half grabbing rebounds.
With their staunch defense locking down the Cougars, the North Branch offense surged and grabbed a lead and kept it until the final buzzer, winning 40-34.
Grote led the team with 13 points, while everyone else chipped in with three or four points. Schindler pointed out that eighth grader Courtney Selbitschka and Olson provided some good minutes and helped rally the troops for the second half comeback.
"Overall it was a real good tournament for us as we played in three close games and found a way to come away with a couple of wins," Schindler said after the 2-1 tournament ran his team's record to 7-2 on the season. "We still are learning each game but if we continue to work hard, we are on track to be pretty good by the end of February."
Also benefitting the Vikings is the fact that five of their seven wins so far have come on the road, and eight of their first 10 contest have been away from the comforts of home. Although they traveled to Cooper earlier this week in their first contest of the new year, 10 of their final 15 games are at home. "We have been on the bus a lot," Schindler said. "We are looking forward to getting back to our home gym for games in January."