by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
All those losses that piled up for the Elk River Elks during their daunting conference season are supposed to pay off during the playoffs.
So far, that’s just what’s happened.
The No. 3 seeded Elks knocked off No. 2 St. Cloud Tech 57-40 on Saturday evening, advancing to the Section 8AAAA finals against No. 1 St. Michael-Albertville. The Elks are 13-15, while Tech has a 23-4 ledger including wins over STMA (22-4) and Fergus Falls (25-1).
“We obviously have a tough conference with a lot of real good teams,” said coach Reed Caouette after the semifinal victory at STMA. “We definitely competed hard all season long, and we lost a number of close games. We feel like that prepares us really well for this time of the year.”
Sophomore center Abi Scheid scored 19 points, freshman guard Gabi Haack 14 and freshman forward Sidney Wentland 10 to lead the Elks offensively, and they snagged 23 rebounds between them. Meanwhile, the main impetus for the victory was stifling defense on the other end, including 12 blocked shots, five by Scheid, four by Haack and three by Wentland.
“We knew if we played our best we could beat them,” said Haack. “We had really good defense, and we moved the ball on offense, and figured out ways to score. We had a lot of blocks. Coach said he thought it was the best defense we have played.”
The Elks, who beat Moorhead 78-54 in the first round, earned a finals rematch with the STMA Knights, who beat the Elks twice last year and again earlier this year. Game time is 7 p.m. Friday at St. John’s University.
Knights coach Kent Hamre obviously knows the Elks are a team they can beat, but made this assessment:
“Elk River is a heckuva team, and very well-coached by Reed and his staff. In that conference, they play strong teams all season long, so they are very battle-tested. It will be a tough game. And I can’t wait! Is it Friday yet?”
The Elks, for the record, finished 7-13 in the Northwest Suburban Conference, which includes three top-ten ranked teams —Anoka, Centennial and Park Center— and few easy marks. In fact, seven other NWSC teams have reached section semifinals.
Tech coach Sasha Hansen said her main concern was the Elks’ size, especially the menacing 6-foot-2 Scheid. The Tigers shot poorly for the game, and the Elks swept away almost every defensive rebound.
“When we penetrated, (Scheid) was always there waiting for us, and I think it made our kids a little tentative,” said Hansen.
The Elks defensive hustle resulted in five tie-ups, and probably contributed to the Tigers committing at least a half-dozen travels while their shooting was off the mark. Hansen noted that they shot 19 percent from the floor (“We’re usually mid 30′s”) and missed 11 free throws (“We’re usually 70 to 80 percent.”)
Senior guard Kaila Burroughs sank 12 points and junior forward Tiana Brown 11 for the Tigers.
“Our goal and focus was to make them uncomfortable with our defense,” said Caouette. “Tech is very patient on offense, which makes its tougher to play that kind of defense, and we did get in some foul trouble, which concerned us.”
Tech surged to a 22-17 lead during a stretch when the Elks shot 1-for-11 from the field and 0-for-4 at the line.
However, Haack revived the Elks. She delivered a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then another from the side, to give the Elks a 25-22 lead at halftime. Those were the Elks’ only two 3-pointers of the game but they were pivotal.
“That was the only time in the first half that we didn’t ‘find’ their kids who can shoot,” said Hansen, “and we gave up back-to-back, wide-open three’s. I think that really changed the momentum going into the second half. They shot (three’s) really well against Moorhead, so we wanted to contest those all the time, and for the most part we did, but not on those two, and they nailed them.”
The Elks opened a 41-26 lead with a 10-0 run that included a jumper from the free throw line by Molli Detloff, who seldom scores from outside, and Scheid, who’s normally low on defense, stealing the ball from a guard at mid-court and marshaling her 74 inches perfectly for a drive to the hoop. Detloff had seven points and seven rebounds.
When Tech sneaked back within 50-40 with two minutes left, the Elks went into a weave offense, from which Wentland delivered five quick points to finish off the Tigers. She spotted a crease from the top of the circle and drove the lane for a three-point play, then was left wide-open on the blocks and scored off a feed from Jayme Langbehn.
“He (Caouette) told us that if we had it (an opening), to go ahead, so, I went for it,” said Wentland about the drive. “That felt awesome.”
It feels awesome for the Elks to beat such a good team and still have another big game to play, too.
Elk River scoring — Jayme Langbehn 3, Anna Rollag 2 (2 stl), Ava Kramer 2, Gabi Haack 14 (7 reb, 4 blk), Molli Detloff 7 (7 reb), Sidney Wentland 10 (8 reb, 3 blk), Abi Scheid 19 (8 reb, 5 blk, 3 stl)