Sailing into state

MARSHALL – They faced each other in the first game of the season, and Friday night the Minneota Vikings and Wabasso Rabbits met once again, both riding double-digit win streaks and both hoping that this game wouldn’t be their last.

Coming off an impressive performance against Southwest Minnesota Christian in the Section 3A-South girls’ basketball championship game, the Rabbits were eager to show how much they had improved since their season opener when they lost to Minneota by 27 points. Instead, the Vikings proved that they’re still clearly the class of the section, controlling nearly every facet of play in a 72-46 win in which they led wire to wire to claim their third straight Section 3A crown.

“We looked strong and we looked strong in a lot of different ways,” Minneota head coach Chad Johnston said. “The girls were very focused and they came out and executed quite well and I’m extremely happy about that.”

Sophomore forward Taylor Reiss scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had four steals and blocked two shots to help fourth-ranked Minneota (27-2 overall) extend its winning streak to 14 games. Sophomore guard Emily Stienessen connected on four 3-pointers on her way to scoring 17 points.

The Vikings will take the court with Section 7A champion Mountain Iron-Buhl at 1 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis for the quarterfinals of the Class A state tournament.

Although his team has been making trips to state seem commonplace the past few years, the significance of winning the Section 3A title for the third straight season wasn’t lost on Johnston.

“I expect good things from our girls and from our program, but this is a wonderful thing and you have to make sure you don’t get lost in this and remind yourself that this is an important deal,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would love to be here right now for the first time, let alone doing this three times.”

The Vikings didn’t let the Rabbits get a sniff of the lead Friday on their way to the convincing victory. Both teams appeared shaky in the opening moments against one another’s full-court pressure before Minneota calmed down and seized an 8-2 lead after Reiss made a layup off a steal in the backcourt three minutes in.

Minneota guard Payton Boerboom hit a 3-pointer from the left wing and Stienessen drained a pair of shots from beyond the arc in a span of just under two minutes, and by the time Wabasso had gotten rid of its early jitters Minneota had already built a 23-12 lead with 10 minutes left in the half.

“We just wanted to come out and have fire and make our shots to open up the lane to get Taylor open,” Stienessen said.

That’s what happened, as the Vikings remained patient on offense and kept scoring on jump shots and under the basket with Reiss. By the end of the half, five different Vikings had scored six or more points and Minneota had built a 44-25 advantage.

The second half started with a second-chance basket by Stienessen, a Stienessen 3 from the left wing, a score down low from Reiss and another 3-pointer by Stienessen from the left corner. The 10-0 run put Minneota up 29 and effectively put the game away with 14 minutes left on the clock.

Having won 18 straight games entering Friday night’s contest, it was a disappointing way to end what had been a phenomenal year for the Tomahawk Conference champion Rabbits, who finish with a 26-3 record.

“We certainly didn’t play like we wanted to play, and that’s an understatement,” Wabasso head coach Neil Dolan said. “But you’ve got to give Minneota credit because they shot lights out.

“You have to pick your poison against them and they all hit shots. They were the better team tonight. They played the first half that we played the other night (against Southwest Minnesota Christian) and it’s hard to catch up against a good team like that.”

Guard Ellen Franta had 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists in her final game playing in a Wabasso uniform. Junior forward Chelsey Guetter, who scored 26 points against SWC, was limited to 13 points Friday going up against the length and athleticism of Reiss and Minneota forward Molly Hennen. Guetter also had eight rebounds in the loss.

It was Reiss and Stienessen who did most of the scoring for Minneota, but there were key contributions from other Vikings in different aspects of the game. Point guard Shelby Corbin finished with nine of her team’s 24 assists to go along with eight points. Hennen also had a solid all-around game with seven points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

Johnston said it was one of the most complete games his team has played this season.

“I thought we played great as a team, we really did,” he said. “You always have your big scorers but everyone has their role.

“Emily and Taylor obviously put some points up tonight, but Shelby Corbin did a very good job of handling the ball for us and being our floor leader. That’s what we need out of her. We also had girls coming off the bench and giving us quality minutes, doing their thing that they needed to do. It was just an overall great performance by our girls tonight.”

As Minneota heads back to state for the third time in three years, it will try to put an end to another streak by getting out of the first round. Minneota lost to Maranatha Christian 49-43 in 2011 and fell to Ada-Borup 67-63 in the quarterfinals last year.

“We feel like we have a good chance,” Reiss said of getting past Day 1 at state. “The team that we play when we go up there is the winner between Mountain Iron-Buhl and North Woods and we played Mountain Iron-Buhl in the summer, so we’ve beaten them before. But we’ll have to play very well to beat them again.”