Marshall girls struggle to contend with Mankato East’s size, fall in 2AAA semis

ST. PETER – Even before for the start of the 2012-13 girls’ basketball season, Marshall head coach Dan Westby could see a road block ahead.

In tabbing Mankato East as the favorite in the section, he said it would be difficult for his Tigers to match up with the Cougars due to their size and said his team would have to try to find other ways to score.

The Tigers were unable to break through that barricade Saturday, as a much larger Mankato East squad dominated the low post and disrupted Marshall’s offense with its length on its way to a 53-46 victory in the Section 2AAA semifinals at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

Five-foot-10 forward Claire Ziegler had her way under the basket, pouring in a game-high 28 points to lead the fifth-ranked and second-seeded Cougars to the win. Mankato East (23-4 overall)?will face top seed New Prague at 7 p.m. Thursday back in St. Peter.

The Tigers, who are ranked fourth in the state and were the third seed in the tournament, end their year with a 24-4 record after having their 11-game winning streak snapped.

Marshall sports just one rotation player, junior forward Kenzie Beekman, who stands 5-10 or taller. Mankato East has five such players. Fighting from behind the whole game, the Tigers managed to stay within striking distance but could never break through and put a run together that would have allowed them to get ahead.

“I think their size gives everybody problems, not just us. It certainly gave us problems tonight,” said Westby, whose squad also fell to the Cougars 69-61 on Dec. 22. “We never had a lead in the game. There were a number of times we got it down to one, but we never were able to get a lead and I think had that happened things maybe would have gone differently. We had opportunities to get leads but we just couldn’t get it done.”

Beekman scored on a putback to tie the game at 8-8 in the oppening minutes before Mankato East went on an 11-2 run to grab momentum. Ziegler scored a bucket off an offensive rebound and had a three-point play during the run, while teammates Marta Anderson and Taylor Karge, a 6-foot forward, each drained a 3-pointer.

Marshall 5-9 senior forward Sarah Andersen drew the tough task trying to defend Ziegler. She fought hard for position but was unable to do much to slow down the more powerful Ziegler, who scored 13 points in the first half and 15 in the second half.

Anderson also battled on boards, grabbing 12 rebounds, and on the offensive end. She scored eight of her 10 points in the first half as she tried to help her squad back into the game. She hit a pull-up jumper with 17 seconds left in the half to tie the game at 30-30. It was the final time Marshall managed to pull even with the Cougars. Ziegler scored another bucket in the paint with three seconds remaining to give Mankato East the lead going into the locker room.

It was a difficult for Marshall to score against Mankato East’s zone defense all game. The Cougars’ length and size made passing lanes harder to find and points in the paint difficult to come by. Marshall finished with just seven assists in the game and lacked the ball movement Westby was looking for.

“I thought we stood around too much versus their zone,” Westby said. “We’ve been good at that this year, we’ve been good at moving the ball and not standing and holding the ball, finding the player and making the extra pass, and we didn’t do that tonight.

“We were hoping that we could maybe force the tempo a bit, but I think their zone slowed us down,” he added. “We would get a rebound but then they’d hustle back into their zone and we were never able to get anything off the break as a result.”

Senior guard Kelsey Saugstad found success shooting over the top of the Cougars’ zone. She hit four 3-pointers on her way to scoring a team-high 18 points in her final game in a Tiger uniform.

After Ziegler scored another two points in the paint to put her team up 46-40 with nine minutes left, Saugstad hit a 3 to get the Tigers within a possession. Niether team scored again until the 5:14 mark when Beekman, who had eight points and 11 boards, split a pair of free throws after getting fouled grabbing an offensive rebound. Marshall scored just two more points the rest of the way.

Westby said he felt the difference in the game, other than Marshall’s lack of size, came down to three things. The first was allowing the Cougars to get fast break points in the first half as they built an early lead, the second was missing free throws at inopportune times (Marshall finished 8-for-14 for the game), and the third was Marshall’s lack of movement against Mankato East’s zone defense.

With three state-ranked teams in the section, it was a hard road for the Tigers to try to get to state and they met a better team on Saturday. Marshall will have to try again next year without Andersen and Saugstad, two players Westby said have been invaluable to his team.

“Sarah, she drew a tough assignment every night and was always guarding someone four or five inches taller than her. Throughout the season she really did a nice job inside for us, especially defensively,” he said. “Kelsey, we’re certainly going to miss her ability to score from the outside and what she can do for us. Somebody is going to have to step up and make some improvements over the summer so they can absorb those minutes that we’re going to miss from those kids.”