It’s not like the Chisago Lakes Wildcats needed any more motivation in playing for their third straight section championship. Sure, they’ve become accustomed to winning Section 7AAA, but they have plenty of unfinished business in Minneapolis at the state tournament, so their motivation derives from that. But, Grand Rapids decided to add a little more fuel to Chisago Lakes’ proverbial fire.
“In this day of social media messaging, various posts were floating around from up north, and they seemed to get the girls motivated,” Head Coach Craig Walker said. Although he wouldn’t elaborate on the messages, the Lady ‘Cats sent a reply message of their own in the first half of their section championship game against Grand Rapids on Friday, March 14 in Duluth. Chisago Lakes’ nasty defense kept the Thunderhawks off the scoreboard for the first five minutes of the game. The Wildcats didn’t build a big lead in that time, in fact, they were only up 11-6 midway through the first half.
But, the Wildcats eventually unleashed their message, going on an 11-0 run on back-to-back baskets from Marissa Kari and buckets from Carmen Backes and Sarah Greene. Grand Rapids tried to answer back and take away the secondary players of the Wildcats, but that allowed newly-minted Pioneer Press Player of the Year Bryanna Fernstrom to run wild, scoring the last six points of the first half to keep Chisago Lakes’ lead in double digits at 31-15. The senior Iowa State commit had 11 first half points, leading all scorers, Backes had eight, Greene had seven and Kari had five.
“We talk a lot about runs in basketball and being able to answer our opponents runs, first by playing good defense, then by answering offensively and we were able to answer their pressure,” Walker explained after the big win. In the second half, there was no letdown for Chisago Lakes. The Wildcat defense continued to shut down Grand Rapids’ best players in Taylor Kane, Megan Allen, Hannah Morris and Heaven Hamling. “You could almost tell they were concerned about Bry altering shots in the middle,” Walker said. “They were getting ok looks, but most were contested by Bry or other defenders.”
Grand Rapids never got within 10 points in the second half, before CL cruised to the 20 point win at 59-39. “This was probably our best defensive game of the season. Dani Berg did a great job after giving up Hamling's first three then defended her and their point guard at different times during the game,” Walker said of his team. “Sarah Greene was given the responsibility of defending Kane and did her usual outstanding defensive performance and we rebounded real well."
Fernstrom, who was named Pioneer Press’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year on Monday after her monster year, scored 27 points and added 15 rebounds. Backes had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. Greene had nine points and 14 rebounds and Kari had nine points, six rebounds and four assists. They will need all of that, plus some, however, when they travel to Mariucci Arena to take on Marshall in the first round of the state tournament. In a peculiar seeding arrangement, the Monticello Magic, who the Wildcats beat by nine points earlier this year, were seeded fifth while the Wildcats, who shared a 22-6 record with Monti, went unseeded for the third consecutive year. In Marshall, the Wildcats face a team that hasn’t lose to a Minnesota team yet this year. They are 28-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming against Sioux Falls Washington of South Dakota.
The Tigers have a balanced attack, with three players averaging double-digits, led by Sarah Buysse at 14.6. They also have seven total players who average over six points a game. The game was played on Wednesday, March 19 at noon at Mariucci Arena (There is NIT games being played at Williams Arena, making the hockey arena a makeshift court) after the County Press went to print. To stay updated on that game, check out Chisago County Press’s Facebook page. If the Wildcats win, they will play Thursday, March 20 at 2 p.m at Williams Arean against the winner of Kasson-Mantorville and second-seeded Fergus Falls. If the Wildcats were to make it to the state championship game, that game will be play on Saturday, March 22 at 6 p.m. at Williams Arena. If they find themselves in the third place game, the contest will take place at Concordia University in St. Paul on Saturday, March 22 at 2 p.m.