Vikings seize semifinal win

By Matt Dahlseid

MINNEAPOLIS – Up seven points with just under a minute left in the most important game of their basketball lives, the Minneota Vikings teetered on the brink of disaster Friday afternoon at Target Center after a series of miscues gave Bethlehem Academy the opportunity to force overtime in the Class A girls’ state basketball tournament semifinals.

Minneota missed four free throws and had two turnovers inbounding the basketball within the final minute of action. But amid the chaos, Minneota sophomore forward Taylor Reiss came up clutch by hitting a pair of free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining after having gone just 2-for-7 up to that point. The shots gave the Vikings a 47-44 lead, which they held through the final buzzer after the Cardinals were unable to get off a good look at a 3-pointer.

Reiss scored a game-high 22 points and had eight rebounds in a defensive battle where open looks were almost nonexistent. Her two final free throws helped ensure Minneota a spot in the program’s first-ever state championship game.

“I wasn’t making my free throws earlier but I just had to be confident because I knew that if I would make my free throws we would either for sure win or go into overtime if they made a shot,” Reiss said. “It felt good to be the one that made sure your team made it to the finals.

“It feels great to be the first team in school history to make it all the way to the championship. I’m really excited.”

The Vikings (29-2 overall) advance to face Ada-Borup at noon today at Target Center in a heavyweight battle for the Class A crown. Ada-Borup defeated Win-E-Mac 62-55 Friday in the other semifinal game.

Bethlehem Academy (25-5) gave itself a chance to pull even with the Vikings for what would have been an almost unbelievable comeback in the final minute of Friday’s game. Cardinal senior guard Jessie Mathews, who finished with a team-high 16 points, got a steal and a layup with 48 seconds left and then BA stole the ensuing inbounds pass. Lauren Mathews was fouled and split a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 44-40 with 45.5 seconds left.

Minneota went 1-for-4 from the foul line on its next two trips before BA’s Taryn Ashley drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing with 16 seconds on the clock, cutting the Vikings’ lead to 45-43. The Cardinals’ Jessie Filzen then stole the ball from Reiss after Minneota’s inbounds pass and Ashley was fouled going to the basket with 6.1 seconds remaining. She made the first shot, but her second attempt bounced off the rim and was collected by Molly Hennen, who got the ball to Reiss for her last two free throws.

Minneota finished 10-for-20 from the foul line. BA was just 4-for-12. Free throw shooting has been shaky for the Vikings all season, but they found a way to make them when they needed it most.

“We didn’t always go 2-for-2, but Megan (Larson) hit one, Molly hit one and obviously Taylor hit the two when she needed to,” Minneota head coach Chad Johnston said. “That’s what you have to have. Obviously we could look at the ones that we missed earlier in the game, but when it comes down to it, you need the ones at the end and they made the big ones. That’s the key.”

The Vikings got some good news prior to the game when starting point guard Shelby Corbin was cleared to play about an hour before tip-off after sustaining a head injury that kept her out of the final minutes of her team’s quarterfinal win over Mountain Iron-Buhl on Thursday. She finished Friday’s game against BA with three points and four rebounds, but her ball-handling and defense were much-needed against the Cardinals.

“It’s exciting because this is the furthest we’ve ever got in history so I knew what I had to do to get myself here, to replenish myself and rest up,” Corbin said. “I started out lacking some confidence, but in warm-ups I built that back up and I was ready to go.”

The first half saw both teams struggle offensively, Minneota against BA’s zone defense and the Cardinals against the Vikings’ man-to-man defense. BA shot just 28 percent from the field, while Minneota shot 31.8 percent and clung to a 19-18 lead at the half after Cardinal forward Megan Hoisington hit a 3-pointer from the left wing at the buzzer for her only points of the game.

BA scored on its first three possessions to start the second half, with two baskets coming off Minneota turnovers, and took a 24-19 lead after center Taylor Schwab scored over Hennen in the post.

Minneota responded by feeding Reiss down low time and time again. She scored six points in the paint during an 8-0 Vikings run that helped them retake the lead. Reiss scored 15 points in the second half, all either coming in the paint or at the free throw line. Though the Cardinals’ defense was tough to crack, BA didn’t have much of an answer for Reiss.

“That match-up zone for them was very effective,” Johnston said. “We maybe made the mistake right away of doing some different things to try to attack it. We went back to our bread and butter in the second half and maybe that’s what we should have done right away.”

Minneota sophomore guard Emily Stienessen made layups on back-to-back possessions to put Minneota up 42-35 with 3:03 remaining. She scored 10 of her 14 points in the second half to complement Reiss on offense.

The Vikings stalled down the stretch before BA started fouling and mounting its comeback in the final minute.

Minneota held a 20-11 rebounding edge in the second half, with eight of its rebounds coming on the offensive end. Hennen had a game-high 11 rebounds and five assists.

Mathews was the only BA player to reach double figures in scoring. Minneota held Cardinals center Hana Palmer to just four points a day after she scored a game-high 20 points in a 66-51 win over Upsala in the quarterfinals.

A familiar foe now stands in the way of the Vikings and their first state championship trophy. Ada-Borup and Minneota met last year in the state tournament quarterfinals, a game which the Cougars won 67-63 behind a perfect shooting performance from returning forward Megan Kolness, who scored 25 points.

For Johnston, the game also provides an opportunity to add a girls’ state basketball championship to the Class A football title the head coach led the Vikings to in 2009.

“I never thought 18 years ago when I started teaching that I was going to be a girls’ basketball coach, football was my life,” Johnston said. “I got the opportunity to do some junior high stuff, worked up and the head girls’ (coaching) job opened and that was what I wanted to do.

“It’s been difficult coaching two sports, two sports that have overlapped with the success of our football team, but my family makes a sacrifice to go without seeing me for about seven or eight months and it’s great to have these kids, these athletes. We have great things going on in Minneota and this is uncharted territory for us. We’ve had some success, but I’m excited for the girls and hopefully they can stay focused. It’s going to be a tough battle, no doubt about it.”