March 15, 2012 at 8:20 a.m.
Sometimes in sports, the smallest adjustments can make the biggest of differences.
After Chisago Lakes was mugged in the first half of their section championship game last week, some slight adjustments allowed them to turn the tables in their most important half of basketball in school history.
Early in the game the Thunderhawks were buoyed by hot-shooting junior Kenzie Kane. Kane, who was fresh off of hitting six first half three pointers in GR’s section semi-final win over North Branch, was back at it again.
She had 18 of her 21 points in the first half. “We just struggled to locate her both in our zone and man defenses,” Head Coach Craig Walker said after the contest.
With Kane staying hot and senior center Jessa Sondergard getting good looks down low, Chisago Lakes floundered.
Despite earning some good looks against Grand Rapids’ 1-3-1 zone defense, Chisago was just missing opportunities. Then, like clockwork, when the Thunderhawks began to build a lead, Chisago Lakes panicked it a bit and started to rush their shots on offense and things only got worse.
By halftime, a full on disaster had struck as Chisago Lakes was down 39-25 and Grand Rapids didn’t seem to be cooling down at all.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they had some experience to draw on from earlier this season.
Chisago Lakes was down by 12 at halftime to Hermantown earlier this year in a big section preview game after the Hawks had shot lights out in the first half. In that one, they battled their way back and topped Hermantown in what had been their biggest game of the year up to that point.
This second half was on a much bigger stage and had much more meaning, but it ended up having the same outcome. “Everyone wants to know what the halftime speech was!” Walker joked. “But, it was all adjustments. Led by the seniors, the girls were confident that they could come back. The win against Hermantown really helped our confidence too.”
The adjustments started on offense where senior Brittney Land began to screen the top of the zone and that allowed point guard Hannah Trandahl to do what she does best: drive and dish.
After four quick points to start the half, the ‘Cats had to lead almost down to single digits before Kane hit another three pointer. From that point on, Trandahl moved over to guard her and despite a four-inch size disadvantage, the feisty little Wildcat hounded Kane the rest of the night and didn’t allow her to score again.
Once Kane slowed down, the Wildcats began to get a little more confidence and their shots on the other end started to find the bottom of the net instead of the back of the rim. The charge was led by Tinjum, who had three big three pointers in the stretch.
After 12 minutes of chipping away at the lead and working to get back in the game, the Wildcats knotted the game with three and a half minutes left when Tinjum used a shot fake to draw the defense toward her and then sunk a huge pull up jumper.
The momentum just continued to flow for Chisago Lakes as it slowly devolved into a foul game as Grand Rapids was battling the clock. Tinjum continued to sink shots like she has her whole career at Chisago Lakes and her free throws at the end sealed what ended up being a 68-63 win for the Wildcats.
The victory was met with jubilation by the girls, coaches and 60-some fans that made the trip north to Duluth for the contest. After two years of frustration and disappointing losses in sections, the Wildcats finally broke through when it counted the most.
Finally, the girls could celebrate. Finally, they could cut the nets down at the end of the game. Finally, they could make the trip south to the Target Center and Williams Arena.
Tinjum led all scorers with 37 points. Fernstrom added 14 points for the Wildcats and Land had eight.
Sondergard led the Thunderhawks with 25 and really carried them in the second half. Kane had 21, but zero after Trandahl began pestering her up and down the court.
Over the weekend, seeds were determined for the state tournament for the top four teams. Despite 24-5 record, it wasn’t likely that the Wildcats would be seeded, and that was the case in the stacked field. Richfield (25-4) earned the number one seed, Fergus Falls (28-1) the number two seed, DeLaSalle (25-3) the third and Hill-Murray (22-7) the fourth.
In the random draw for the match ups, Chisago Lakes got Fergus Falls. They took on the Otters on Wednesday, March 14 at 2 p.m. at Williams Arena in Minneapolis after the County Press went to print.
“As confident as our girls are now, I give us a good shot against Fergus Falls in the quarterfinals,” Walker said. “The competition that we’ve played has prepared us well for this game. The girls are enjoying every second of this experience together!”
Fergus Falls is the most unknown of the top seeds. The Otters only played one team ranked in the top 10 in Class AAA all year, beating Alexandria three separate times on the year -- and Alexandria finished 22-5 on the season.
The Otters, who were the Central Lakes Conference champs, lost only one game, and that was to Class AA #6 Hawley on Jan. 24 by a score of 41-37. Fergus Falls had previously beaten Hawley 60-43 earlier in the season.
The Otters have a balanced scoring attack and have three girls averaging in double figures. Senior Sydney Schultz (13.6 points per game), sophomore Brianna Rasmusson (11.2), and senior Mariah Monke (10.9) will be who the ‘Cats are tasked with containing. Monke also leads the team in rebounds at 7.7 per game.
If the Wildcats are able to win their first round contest over Fergus Falls, they will play Thursday, March 15 at noon at the Target Center. If they lose that match up, they’re out of the tournament. Unlike the girls hockey tournament, the girls basketball tourney only awards the top three spots and there won’t be a consolation bracket for the losers in the first round.