March 8, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.

'Cats one win away from first state tourney

'Cats one win away from first state tourney
'Cats one win away from first state tourney

Chisago Lakes 66, Princeton 63
Postseason struggles have been the calling card of the Chisago Lakes girls basketball team the past couple of years.
 
Two years ago, they were the number two seed and were upset by seventh seeded North Branch in the first round.
Last year, the Wildcats earned the third seed and were knocked out in the first round by the sixth seeded Park Center Pirates.
 
This year, they narrowly missed the top three seed sweep, narrowly escaping an opening round match up against the eighth seeded Princeton Tigers.
Although Princeton was 7-20 on the season, they had won four of their last five games and were on a bit of a roll entering the game.
 
Chisago Lakes came out a bit nervous, despite their 21-5 regular season record, and Princeton came out with nothing to lose and a carefree attitude.
“They put a lot of pressure on our guards and wings and we had trouble getting open offensively,” Head Coach Craig Walker said after the game.
 
That early pressure led to 16 first half turnovers for Chisago Lakes, and that was a big factor in keeping Princeton close. Chisago Lakes had only a 32-29 lead at halftime.
Throughout the second half, constant turnovers kept Princeton close and the game came down to free throw shooting. Hannah Trandahl and Whitney Tinjum combined to go six-for-eight from the charity stripe in crunch time, and it helped the Wildcats seal the three point win over the pesky Tigers.
Tinjum led all scorers with 25 points. Bryanna Fernstrom added 12 points and Brittney Land had 10.
 
Although the win was ugly, that didn’t matter to Walker at that moment. “We were tight and didn’t play fundamental basketball offensively or defensively,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win in sections and we’re moving on to play again.”
Chisago Lakes 66, Hibbing 42
In the semi-finals, Chisago Lakes got back to what propelled them to a 21-5 regular season in the first place.
 
“My assistants and I spent some time Thursday night after the Princeton game going over the Hibbing scouting report and again Friday morning to prepare the girls for Friday night’s game,” Walker said. “We spoke as a team after Thursday’s game -- and again at our walk through after school -- a lot about defensive fundamentals, playing together as a team, and focus.”  
 
Hibbing had beaten the fourth-seeded Hermantown Hawks to advance to play CL in the Ward Gym. A scheduling conflict with the Chisago Lakes Home Show left the Wildcats in the smaller, older gym, but Walker even noted that the atmosphere can be better in that gym, and on Friday night, that was especially true, as the Ward was rocking the whole night.
 
What got them rocking was an unlikely senior shooter.
Despite being a streaky three point shooter, senior Annie Stenson hadn’t gotten much going this season so far. She was averaging just over five points a game and she had mostly come off the bench and been a fourth or fifth scoring option, but she forced her coaches and teammates hand with a record-breaking run.
 
With the game still close, Stenson went on a streak where she hit four three pointers in a row on four straight possessions, catapulting the Wildcats to a sizeable lead.
Stenson wasn’t even close to being finished, however. The guard took a quick break on the bench as Land hammered the Bluejacket post players inside for a few more points to cushion the lead.
But, moments later, Stenson checked back in and resumed her assault from the three point line.
 
She hit her fifth straight three pointer despite being fouled and sank the free throw for a rare four-point play.
That three tied the school record for most long bombs in a game. But Stenson added two more for good measure before the half was out and that stretched the lead to a nearly insurmountable 44-20 cushion for Chisago Lakes.
 
By then, the cramped Ward Gym was going absolutely nuts with seats creaking underneath the students feet and everyone looking for more from the hot hand of Stenson.
In the second half, Stenson didn’t hit any more three pointers, but she didn’t need to. The ‘Cats played even with Hibbing using Fernstrom, Land and Tinjum. Plus, their defense was in lockdown mode as Fernstrom swatted away nine shots, two shy of her school record.
 
Hibbing was never able to make a run and the 24 point cushion the Wildcats had at halftime held up to be the difference in the game as they won 66-42.
Stenson led the way with 21 points, Fernstrom and Land both scored 10 and for the first time this year, Tinjum was held to single digits, scoring nine points, but with Stenson on fire, she didn’t need to carry so much of the offensive burden.
 
With the victory, the Wildcats advanced to the section finals for the first time since 1991. In the final, they’ll take on Grand Rapids. The second seeded Thunderhawks have owned this section over the past few years, earning the state bid two of the last three years.
 
However, Chisago Lakes is the top seed this year, and that mostly came from the strength off their 76-63 victory over the Thunderhawks earlier this year.
If the Wildcats can duplicate that feat, it’d be the first time they go to state in school history.
 
Despite being the top seed in the section, Chisago Lakes has to travel to Duluth Denfeld for a neutral site game in the finals. Although that seems to favor Grand Rapids, their fans still have an hour and a half trip to Duluth, so it should be a raucous, anxious crowd for both schools.
The game is Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. at Duluth Denfeld High School.

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