January 12, 2012 at 8:39 a.m.
As if playing the eighth-ranked team in Class AAAA wasn't enough, the North Branch girls basketball squad lost three of their starters early in the game and struggled to keep the game at a respectable distance.
Leading scorer Sarah Lekson, senior leader Erin Reber and point guard Haley Huset all played a minimal role in the game due to injuries sustained during the contest. "It was a very physical game and we had three girls hurt and unable to play," Head Coach Dan Schindler said. "When that happens, we have girls in roles they are not used to and the harder we tried, the worse it got."
North Branch got down by 28 in the first half, scoring only 11 points in the opening stanza.
Nothing worked in the second half on offense, either. Although the Hawks slowed their scoring with some reserves in, North Branch still only scored six points in the second half, which is one of their lowest outputs in a single half ever.
"Robbinsdale Cooper is a great team and we really helped them out by playing right into their hands on their press," Schindler said. "For some reason we didn't want to reverse the basketball and we found ourselves in many trap situations which is the style of game they like to play."
Cooper extended their led in the second half and ended up winning the one-sided affair 61-17. Kallie Grote led the Vikes in scoring with nine points. No other girl on the team had more than three points.
North Branch 87, St. Francis 78
The Vikings were looking to bounce back big against St. Francis after the abysmal showing against Cooper, but they would have to do so without Reber and Lekson in the lineup, as both were still battling injuries sustained in the Cooper loss.
Huset was able to return, but she wasn't at full strength and was dealing with a sore knee all game.
In the first half of the eventual marathon contest, St. Francis jacked up three pointer after three pointer, and a lot of them were finding the bottom of the basket. They started the game with a three pointer and ended the first half with eight of them.
The only reason North Branch was able to stay close to the Saints was that Grote shouldered the scoring burden and keeping the score close at 31-24.
Annette Olson, in her first career varsity start, pulled down 10 rebounds in the opening half also, allowing the Vikes to control the boards.
With the Vikings down by seven, Lekson made the decision to suit up and try to play with her bad ankle. Although she wasn't much of a factor in the early going as St. Francis extended their lead to 13 points and the Vikings looked to be headed to a conference loss.
North Branch kept working, however, and they finally chipped away enough to take the lead at 52-50 with just under two minutes remaining. The rest of regulation was a bit stagnant, but the Vikes held a 56-53 lead with only a few ticks left on the clock.
Unfortunately, they couldn't keep St. Francis from dropping another three pointer with five seconds left to tie the game and send it to the first overtime.
St. Francis might as well rename their team the Cats, as they trailed by three again in the second overtime with only a few second remaining on the clock. Another buzzer-beating three pointer sent the game into a second overtime.
In the second extra frame, Lekson started to establish herself despite her problematic ankle.
She scored eight of North Branch's 11 points in the frame, and this time, it looked like the Vikings had the means to finally put the Saints away.
North Branch led by two with nine seconds left and were at the line. If both free throws were good, the marathon game would be over, if not, the Saints only had a slim chance to tie. One of the two free throws were good and St. Francis again trailed by three points with less than 10 seconds remaining -- their third such situation of the game -- and wouldn't you know it, for the third time, they came through again.
After the free throw, the Saints went the length of the floor and hit a three pointer at the buzzer to tie the game back up and send the game into a third overtime.
In what turned out to be the last overtime session, Jessica Merchant took over, scoring six of North Branch's 13 points including a key four-for-four stretch from the free throw line to ice the victory.
The final score ended at 87-78 in favor of the Vikes.
"It was definitely a game I will never forget. I have been coaching for 32 years but never been involved in a three overtime game," a worn out Schindler said after the game. "St. Francis made four three pointers at buzzers -- end of half, regulation, end of first overtime, end of second overtime -- and still lost."
For the game they made 15 three pointers overall, and that's what kept them in the game.
The Vikings, who went from scoring 17 points one day to 87 points two days later, broke the school record for points in a single game. They even approached the state record for most free throws attempted in a game. They went to the line an astounding 62 times, which was second all time in state history behind Red Wing's 75 attempts in 2008. Although North Branch went to the line over 60 times, they only converted 34 of them, which was their biggest flaw of the night. But, after the whirlwind game, that didn't matter, as long as they won. "We missed too many free throws, but we made the ones we needed to win," Schindler explained.
St. Francis had four girls foul out of the game and North Branch had two.
"I am really proud how our team bounced back and how hard our team played tonight," Schindler said. "It was very emotional to let them tie us at the end of each period but these girls just wouldn't quit. It was just a great high school basketball game."
Olson, in her first career start, had 13 points and 23 rebounds for North Branch, Huset led the team in scoring with 20 points despite the bum knee, and Lekson, only playing from the second half on, had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Vikes. Merchant was seven-for-seven from the line with 13 points.
Full scoring summary:
24 - 32 - 7 - 11 - 13 - 87
31 - 25 - 7 - 11 - 4 - 78
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