by Eric Oslund
The Elk River girls basketball team made their way to the Target Center to play in the first round of the state tournament on Tuesday, March 14. It was the first time since 2006 that the program had made it to state, so none of the girls were really used to playing in an environment like that.
The venue is large, the fans were far away, the floor had some extra bounce to it – with a few dead spots – and the lights were very bright.
“Coming in, the first layup I was literally blinded by the lights, it was crazy,” senior forward Sidney Wentland said after the game. “But after a couple minutes we got used to it. Got used to the floor and everything, but it’s definitely really nerve wrecking first coming in.”
Whether it was the nerves, the environment, or something else, the Elks did not look like themselves in the first half of the game. Shots were not falling early on and they found themselves trailing 10-7 five minutes in, but then the team – especially Wentland – got rolling.
The Elks would go no an 11-5 run over the next four minutes to take an 18-15 lead, with nine of the points coming from Wentland. Unfortunately, though, Wentland would commit her second foul of the day shortly after that and was taken out of the game with 8:19 left to play before halftime.
Her presence on the court was clearly missed as the Elks’ momentum started to drift away and they entered the intermission trailing 23-22 after White Bear Lake hit a three pointer with a little over two seconds remaining.
“It was pretty horrible, I hate sitting,” Wentland said of her time on the bench. “It was tough, but I tried to cheer on my teammates, and in the second half I was ready to go and help my team.”
Two big things needed to change for the Elks in the second half if they hoped to come out of this game with a win, preserve their perfect record and advance to the semifinal round of the state tournament.
Offensively, they needed to be more patient. They were settling for a lot of low-percentage shots, which led to a lot of misses. Defensively, they needed to rebound better as White Bear Lake was beating them 20-13 on the boards. But to their credit, they settled down, and looked more like the team everyone was used to seeing, for a majority of the second half.
“We didn’t panic,” Elk River’s head coach Jeremy Digiovanni said. “We just had to do some of the things better that we had done all season long, and what we had talked about the last three games leading up to the game.”
The Elks came out and were able to take the lead one minute into the second half off two free throws by Gabi Haack.
White Bear Lake went on a bit of a run after that to regain the lead, but the Elks battled back and once again found themselves on top, 32-30, after Wentland made both her attempts from the free-throw line.
The Elks were then able to pull away and built up a 44-34 lead with seven minutes left in the game. It was at that point that Digiovanni pulled Haack and Danielle Lachmiller as a way to give them some rest.
“The intention was we were up 10 and we wanted to just get them 30 seconds to a minute break and have them ready for the stretch run,” the head coach explained. “They both had played the entire first half and all the second half, so we were trying to give them a short chance to catch their breathe when we had a cushion.”
Unfortunately, that cushion quickly dissipated as White Bear Lake began pressing and forcing turnovers once those two starters headed to the bench. Those turnovers led to a lot of quick transition baskets, which put the Elks on the wrong side of an 8-0 run.
The Elks’ 10-point lead was cut to just two and Digiovanni took a timeout with 5:24 remaining in the game, his team leading 44-42.
“I was like, ‘Aaaah, I’m not tired. I want to go back out there.’ I was anxious to get back out there,” Haack said when asked what it was like to sit on the bench and watch her team’s lead disappear. “There’s not really much you can do on the bench when that’s happening, but just know when I went in I was like, ‘We need to keep this lead.’ I just knew we needed to keep that mindset, keep the energy up and we needed to get the game done.”
Both Haack and Lachmiller returned to the game after the timeout and the Elks looked like a new team. They went on a 6-0 run to make the score 50-42 and that was all they needed, securing a 52-44 victory in the end.
Up next, the Elks will face Lakeville North in the semifinals on Thursday, March 16, in Williams Arena at 8pm. These two teams met back on Dec. 3, the Elks’ first game of the season, and the Elks were able to come away with a 61-47 victory, so you can be sure Lakeville North will be looking to even the score.
Box Score vs. WBL:
Ava Kramer: 13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists
Kelsie Cox: 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists
Sidney Wentlan: 13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists
Danielle Lachmiller: 5 points, 4 rebounds, 0 assists
Gabi Haack: 14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists