GIRLS BASKETBALL: Tigers in title game

MINNEAPOLIS – Every athlete who plays basketball runs through the scenario in their head, whether it’s in practice, in their driveway or in their dreams.

Callie Graff made that all-important scenario a reality in the semifinals of the MSHSL Class 3A Girls Basketball State Tournament on Thursday.

Her free throws with 3.5 seconds left lifted No. 3 seed Marshall to a 52-51 win over No. 2 seed Fergus Falls and placed the Tigers in their first state championship game since 2006.

After winning back-to-back state titles in 2001 and 2002, Marshall finished as the runner-up in Marshall in 2005 and 2006.

“It’s surreal and amazing,” Graff said following the game. “We always go through that scenario when we practice free throws.”

The Tigers (30-1) will play No. 1 seed Park Center (25-5) for the Class 3A state championship at 6 p.m. Saturday at Williams Arena.

Marshall trailed by nine at the half before clawing its way back, thanks to tough defense and getting the Otters into foul trouble. The Tigers trailed by 11 with 17:18 left and pulled within four at 41-37 with 11:01 to go.

Sarah Buysse hit a 3-pointer to cut the Otters’ lead to 46-43 with 6:18 left before Hannah Bennett came up with a key steal and hit a jumper in the paint to give the Tigers a 48-47 lead with 1:49 to go. Coming out of a timeout, Marah Mulso hit a jumper from the baseline to put the Tigers up 50-47 with 1:20 left.

The Otters wouldn’t go quietly as Brianna Rasmusson cut the Fergus Falls deficit to 50-49 with a jumper and Bailey Strand hit two free throws to give the Otters a 51-50 lead with 20 seconds to go.

After calling a timeout with 14.9 seconds remaining, Marshall ran a play that saw Morgan Saugstad attempt a baseline 3-pointer that clanged off the rim. Graff pulled down the offensive rebound and was fouled by Rasmussen with a little less than 4 seconds to go.

The play sent Graff to the free-throw line.

The Tigers lived up to their nickname by clawing their way back with pure determination in the second half.

It’s something that wasn’t lost on Marshall coach Dan Westby.

“You look at our schedule this year and we haven’t had a lot of close games. But the close games we have had, we’ve won,” Westby said. “I thought, after our kids got in a little bit of a lull of settling for outside shots, we did a good job of getting the ball back inside.”

During the final few minutes the Tigers were reminded of all the work they put in to get to this point and how it needed to translate to the court.

Kenzie Beekman showed some of her senior leadership in helping keep Marshall poised down the stretch.

“We just thought back on all the drills we’ve done and the pressure free throws that we do,” Beekman said.

She added that the Tigers’ chemistry on-and-off the court helps in late game situations

“We’re like a family. We’re always together on-and-off the court. You don’t really find us separate, ever,” Beekman said.

Fergus Falls came in with a lot of offensive weapons at its disposal and found some of that diluted by foul trouble in the second half. Anna Monke and Kristin Traiser both fouled out and Monke finished the game with just 12 minutes logged.

Fergus Falls heads coach Brad Strand didn’t think Monke had been on the floor enough all tournament.

“Monke only plays 12 minutes in the game,” Strand said. “She’s an all-state kid. We were scrambling. We had got in some foul trouble before, but not like that. The last two games, Monke has played not that many minutes. Traiser plays the whole first half and then gets dinged. We put her back in the game and she gets another one. You tell me its a one-point game without those two girls in the game in the final minutes, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m super proud of them.”

Strand admitted his team struggled with Marshall’s pressure in the second half. The Otters committed 20 turnovers compared to the eight turnovers committed by the Tigers. The difference showed as Marshall scored 17 points off turnovers, while the Otters only cashed in five.

The Tigers won despite shooting 18 of 65 (28 percent) from the floor while Fergus Falls shot 19 of 54 (35 percent). Marshall also bucked another trend, winning despite being the poorer shooting team from the free throw line. The?Otters shot 10 of 12 (85 percent) while Marshall finished 13 of 21 (62 percent) from the stripe.

The Tigers have struggled to make field goals of late and will put in more shooting time today during practice, hoping things turn around for the state championship game.

“We’ve had our struggles from the 3-point line,” Westby said. “We do a lot of shooting and we’ll do a lot of shooting in practice and, hopefully, we’ll be able to fix some things.”

Sarah Buysse played a huge part for the Tigers, finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds to complete a double-double. Bennett also finished with 13 points to go with four rebounds while Graff scored 12 points and had nine rebounds. Beekman scored 11 points and grabbed eight boards.

Bailey Strand finished with a game-high 22 points, while Rasmusson added 10 more. The Tigers were able to keep the rest of the Otters in single digits.

Buysse, a junior guard that is also plays volleyball and competes in track, said the Tigers’ success carried over from the volleyball court to the basketball court, but Westby felt it was Buysse’s track prowess that helped her be effective.

“She’s got a lot of speed,” Westby said. “She can make a lot of things happen. She’s kind of an all-or-nothing kid and she came up with some big plays down the stretch for us.”

While most coaches would have their heart racing in situations like the one that had Graff at the line with the game hanging in the balance, it wasn’t the case with Westby.

His mood was more thankful.

“My heart actually wasn’t racing that bad,” Westby said. “I was just glad we had a chance. To her credit, she knocked them both down. I’m really proud of these girls and excited for them that they have an opportunity like this. What a big win.”

CLASS 3A BASKETBALL STATE TOURNAMENT

Semifinals

Thursday

At Williams Arena, Minneapolis

MARSHALL 52, FERGUS?FALLS 51

Fergus Falls (29-2 OVERALL): Devonie Smith 1-5 1-2 3, Kristin Traiser 4-9 0-0 8, Bailey Strand 7-24 8-8 22, Brianna Rasmusson 4-13 0-0 10, Anna Monke 2-2 0-0 5, Kathryn Sawtell 1-1 0-0 2, Brooklyn Seland 0-0 0-0 0, Rachel Johnson 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 19-54 (35%) 10-12 (85%) 51.

MARSHALL (30-1 OVERALL): Sarah Buysse 3-13 5-11 13, Morgan Saugstad 0-6 1-2 1, Kenzie Beekman 5-12 0-0 11, Hannah Bennett 6-16,1-1 13, Callie Graff 3-5 6-7, Marah Mulso 1-7 0-0 2, Lexi Saugstad 0-6 0-0 0. TOTALS: 18-65 (28%) 13-12 (62%) 52.

HALFTIME: Fergus Falls 30, Marshall 21. 3-POINT FIELD GOALS: Fergus Falls 3-14 (Rasmusson 2-5, Monke 1-1, Smith 0-2, Strand 0-6); Marshall 3-21 (Buysse 2-7, Beekman 1-4, L. Saugstad 0-2, M. Saugstad 0-3, H. Bennett 0-5). REBOUNDS: Fergus Falls 45 (Smith 13); Marshall 40 (Buysse 11). TOTAL FOULS (FOULED OUT): Fergus Falls 18 (Monke, Traiser); Marshall 12 (None). TECHNICAL FOULS: None. ASSISTS: Fergus Falls 5 (Rasmusson 3); Marshall 3 (Bennett 2). STEALS: Fergus Falls 1 (Strand); Marshall 13 (Beekman 5). BLOCKED SHOTS: Fergus Falls 7 (Traiser 4); Marshall 3 (Buysse, Mo. Saugstad, Bennett). TURNOVERS: Fergus Falls 20; Marshall 8.