State: Vikings down MIB

MINNEAPOLIS – After defeating Wabasso in the Section 3A championship to qualify for their third straight Class A state girls’ basketball tournament, the Minneota Vikings had customized rubber wristbands made which they wore up until their state quarterfinal game Thursday against Mountain Iron-Buhl. Printed on the blue bands were two words: Target Center.

Denied the opportunity to play on the biggest stage after first-round exits the past two years, the Vikings showed just how determined they were to get to their desired destination. Jumping out to a 12-0 lead on top-ranked Mountain Iron-Buhl Thursday at Williams Arena, fourth-ranked Minneota held off a late charge for a 60-53 wire-to-wire victory.

With the win, the Vikings (28-2) advance to play Bethlehem Academy at noon today at the Target Center for the right to move on to the Class A championship game.

Relief and excitement were the two predominant emotions visible in the faces of the Minneota players and coaches following their big win.

“Redemption. It’s about time we got here,” said Minneota sophomore guard Payton Boerboom, who scored 12 points Thursday. “The third time is obviously the charm and hopefully we can keep rolling. We just have to keep playing how we did and build from there.”

Shooting woes at Williams Arena had been the culprit that had prevented Minneota from getting out of the first round in its past two trips to state. Minneota head coach Chad Johnston expressed concern entering the game that his team would have a mental hurdle to overcome to shake those shooting struggles.

It turned out there was nothing to worry about. Sophomore forward Taylor Reiss scored on Minneota’s first possession when she put back an offensive rebound. She scored another basket down low on the next trip, then sophomore guard Emily Stienessen had a put-back basket as the Vikings jumped out to a 6-0 lead two minutes in.

Minneota’s full-court press gave the Rangers’ young guards problems early on, and after a steal by Molly Hennen, MIB eighth-grade guard Chelsea Mason (the team’s leading scorer this season) picked up her second foul with 15 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first half and had to go to the bench.

“I don’t know if it rattled them a lot, but we’ve talked about sometimes these teams handle the pressure well when they’re facing someone else, but you like to think your pressure is a little bit different,” Johnston said. “When you’ve got Taylor Reiss running around in front of you and Molly Hennen and Megan Larson, we like to think that’s a little bit different than other people’s pressure.

“I thought we did a great job early. We probably would have kept that three-quarter-court trap going the whole game but we were getting gassed and had to give ourselves a little bit of a break.”

After layups by Stienessen and Boerboom, Reiss got a steal and a layup to cap a 12-0 run just over three minutes into the action.

The fast start erased any doubts the Vikings may have had entering the game.

“That’s very crucial to come out and get that lead because that gives you confidence,” said Reiss, who scored a game-high 21 points and had 11 rebounds, “and if you have that confidence it’s easier to keep it through the whole game if you have that early lead.”

Minneota extended its lead to 14 before MIB mounted an 11-0 run that was capped by a 3-pointer by eighth-grader Mya Buffetta to cut the lead to 25-22 with 3:48 left in the half.

Despite shooting 50 percent (14 of 28) in the first half to MIB’s 25 percent (6 of 24), Minneota’s lead was just 29-25 at the break. The Rangers made up the points at the foul line, where they were 11-for-15 compared to Minneota’s 0-for-4 effort. MIB also got the Vikings’ post players in foul trouble, pinning two fouls on Reiss and three on forward Molly Hennen.

The Vikings suffered a big blow in the second half when Reiss picked up her fourth foul with 11:11 remaining, putting the team in a tough spot in the post against MIB’s front line that sports three players who stand 5-foot-11 or taller. But instead of losing their six-point lead with their leading scorer on the bench, the other Minneota players stepped in and increased it.

Guard Megan Larson hit a 3-pointer from the right corner on the very next possession and Stienessen drilled a 3 from the top of the key with 9:03 left to build the Minneota lead up to 44-34.

After Mason, who is the Rangers’ primary ball-handler, fouled out with 7:38 remaining, MIB’s Lissy McCulloch hit a pair of 3s to tighten the game. But Boerboom had an answer of her own, connecting on a three-pointer from the left wing and then hitting a long jumper from the right baseline a short time later to give her team a six-point edge with 6:30 left.

“I’m not usually a scorer,” Boerboom said, “but they were taking away Emily and she’s obviously a great scorer for us and Taylor was getting attention down in the post and I just felt the confidence and adrenaline and I went for it.”

Reiss came back in a short time later, after starting point guard Shelby Corbin had to be taken out with a head injury, but MIB chipped the lead down to three with 1:38 left after a one-handed baseline runner by McCulloch. Boerboom and Reiss responded with back-to-back layups as Minneota sliced through the Rangers’ press, and Stienessen came up with a steal that eventually led to a pair of free throws by Hennen which pushed the lead to nine with 55 seconds remaining and effectively sealed the game. Hennen finished with seven points, eight assists and four steals.

Minneota shot 49 percent from the field for the game but was just 8-for-19 from the foul line. MIB shot 32.7 percent from the field and was led in scoring by McCulloch, who had 12 points.

Elated after reaching their goal of making it to the Target Center, the Vikings are now a game away from playing for the state championship.

“This group has been talking about it from the beginning,” Johnston said. “After they beat Wabasso their talk was Target Center. They wanted to be there. They were really focused that they got that one-and-done jinx behind us. They came out and played that way and they played that way throughout the whole game.”

In the other two Class A quarterfinal games Friday, Ada-Borup knocked out two-time defending state champion Maranatha Christian 70-53 and Win-E-Mac defeated Mankato Loyola 59-49.

MIB (53)

Allie Knuti 4-4 3-9 11, Kathy Ostman 3-7 2-4 8, Chelsea Mason 2-9 2-2 7, Mya Buffetta 2-11 4-4 9, Lissy McCulloch 4-12 2-2 12, Connor Rautio 2-5 0-0 4, Laura Ostman 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 17-52 15-23 53. 3-pointers 4-20 (McCulloch 2-4, Mason 1-5, Buffetta 1-6) Rebounds 30 (Knuti 11, K. Ostman 8) Assists 11 (McCulloch 5, Buffetta 4) Steals 9 (Mason 4) Blocks 3 Turnovers 15 Total Fouls 20.

Minneota (60)

Molly Hennen 2-7 2-3 7, Shelby Corbin 0-1 0-2 0, Emily Stienessen 3-7 2-3 9, Taylor Reiss 9-14 3-9 21, Payton Boerboom 5-9 1-2 12, Kelsey Maeyaert 1-1 0-0 2, Megan Larson 3-4 0-0 7, Michelle Jerzak 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 22-49 8-19 60. 3-pointers 4-11 (Hennen 1-2, Boerboom 1-2, Larson 1-2, Stienessen 1-3) Rebounds 41 (Reiss 11, Jerzak 7, Hennen 6) Assists 17 (Hennen 8, Corbin 3) Steals 9 (Hennen 4, Reiss 3) Blocks 0 Turnovers 19 Total Fouls 14.

Halftime Score: Minneota 29, MIB 25.