‘Relentless’ Wildcats top Braves to qualify for state tournament
The ball hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity.
If it went through the basket, the Blair-Taylor girls basketball team’s season would be over. If it didn’t, the team would advance to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division Five Sectional final game.
Clank! The ball bounced off the rim and to the floor as the buzzer sounded. With the win over Hillsboro, the Wildcats advanced to play Belmont. B-T took an early lead in the sectional final game and held on for a 62-57 win to clinch a trip to the WIAA State Championship in Green Bay this weekend.
The Wildcats (27-1) state tournament opens Friday morning at roughly 10:30 a.m. when they Wabeno/Laona (21-7). The winner will go on to play the winner of the game between Chippewa Falls McDonell Central (24-5) and Albany (28-0) for the state championship on Saturday. The team from Chippewa Falls is the top seed in Division Five, B-T was awarded the second seed, W/L the third and Albany is the fourth seed, despite going undefeated so far this season.
B-T 57 Hillsboro 55
Hillsboro was surging to the finish as what was a nine-point Blair-Taylor lead with four minutes remaining in the game was nearly completely erased as Kyra Bisarek’s potential game-winning three pointer hung in the air.
“Oh God, don’t go in, please don’t go in,” B-T coach Jesse Lien thought.
His prayer was answered. The shot went off the rim and bounced to the floor as the buzzer sounded. The Wildcats held on for a 57-55 win and advanced to play Belmont in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division Five Sectional Final on Friday.
“We were right there in her face and we got to take our chance that she doesn’t make a 30-footer like that and off the iron it went,” Lien said.
It was the second time B-T had surrendered a big lead as the Wildcats took an 11-point lead into halftime only to see Hillsboro pound the ball inside to six-foot-four Violet Morren for eight points as part of a 12-3 run to open the second half and tie the game.
The teams went back and forth as the game was tied again at 39 and at 41 before B-T got two straight baskets by Lexi Lofgren and Lindsay Steien to open up a four-point lead with 9:20 remaining.
After two free throws by Morren, Lofgren and Steien scored again then Abby Thompson got a layup off of a steal to put the Wildcats ahead by eight with less than eight minutes remaining. Steien connected on a jump shot a few possessions later that gave B-T a 55-46 lead with 4:04 left, but the Tigers had another run in them.
The Tigers scored seven straight points to cut the lead to two with two minutes remaining.
B-T began playing keep away at that point. The Wildcats moved the ball around the perimeter before Hillsboro was forced to foul. Eventually, Thompson was sent to the free-throw line for B-T and she sank both attempts to give the Wildcats a four-point lead with 22 seconds remaining.
The Tigers rushed down the floor and got the ball to Morren for a basket. Then they intentionally fouled Steien with about nine seconds left.
Steien stepped to the free-throw line in the single-bonus situation, but missed the first attempt. The Tigers got the rebound, pushed the ball down the court and got it to Bisarek, who released what could have been the game-winner, but the ball went off the rim.
“It’s a game of runs and you want the last one at the end,” Lien said. “Everything they had, we withstood it, our seniors have been here, they’ve been in these situations.”
Morren presented a match-up problem unlike the Wildcats had seen this season. She gave them trouble with 17 points in the second half, but also scored six early as her team went on a 10-2 run.
B-T made a defensive adjustment, however, turning to freshman Andrea Waldera to handle the defensive assignment. Waldera was able to use her length to challenge Morren, blocking some of her shots and forcing a few turnovers.
“She played amazing,” Lien said. “She can get around the front, be long, be physical. She’s got a little mean streak in her for being a young girl. I like it, she is learning from the older ones. She has settled into this group and I couldn’t have asked anything more from that young lady.”
With Morren neutralized, B-T was able to pressure Hillsboro’s guards and force turnovers. The Wildcats scored 10 straight points off of steals as they took a 25-15 lead. Two straight baskets by Steien put B-T ahead by 14 at one point.
Hillsboro cut the lead to eight, but Thompson knocked in a three pointer with eight seconds left in the half to give B-T a 34-23 advantage at the intermission.
Steien led the Wildcats with 22 points while Thompson added 14. Sydney Fremstad, Lofgren and Waldera all scored six and Kierstyn Kindschy added three.
B-T 62 Belmont 57
Against perhaps the best defense they faced all season, coach Jesse Lien said his team needed to keep attacking. That’s exactly what they did Saturday becoming just the third team this season to top 60 points against Belmont, an effort that advanced B-T to the state tournament.
The Wildcats had a big lead at one point in the first half, but they looked to be in trouble early in the second. Belmont closed the first half with a 10-2 run, then they opened the second with a three pointer that put them ahead 31-30.
But B-T had another gear and a couple of closers.
The Wildcats got the ball to leading scorer Lindsay Steien for seven straight points. Steien converted a three-point play, scoring while being fouled then knocking down the free throw, followed by two more free throws and a layup off of a steal that gave the Wildcats a 37-31 lead.
The seven points to start the second half were more than the B-T star had in the first half, but Lien knew she would come through when the team needed it most.
“(I told her) to just be relentless, just keep getting after it,” Lien said after Steien scored six points in the first half. “I said ‘they’re going to focus on you to start with, just take what they give you’… she’s got a great first step and she attacked. And, you know what? She’s a closer. She finished it out.”
Belmont wasn’t done as Kennedy Howell answered with her second three pointer of the half before Mia Hodgson scored to cut the lead to one.
B-T has another star who came through as Thompson scored to put her team back ahead by there before getting a steal and taking it in for a layup to make the score 41-36 with about 11 minutes left in the game.
“(Belmont was) getting tired and Abby and Lindsay have an extra gear,” Lien said. “They can just keep going.”
After another Belmont basket, Thompson got a steal and eventually the ball got in Steien’s hands for a three pointer. Steien scored again before Thompson knocked down a three pointer with 7:30 left in the game that put the Wildcats ahead 49-40.
After a basket by Belmont’s Rylee Rogers, Thompson scored while being fouled then converted the free throw to put her team ahead by 10.
Kierstyn Kindschy a made two free throws to keep the lead at 10 then Steien knocked down a pair with about four minutes left, making the score 56-46.
Belmont got within seven late in the game, but the Wildcats maintained control. Belmont scored at the buzzer to make the final score closer, but the Wildcats were the ones celebrating after the final horn.
Belmont advanced to the sectional semifinal game, by holding Kickapoo to just 26 points in the semifinal round. Lien knew it would be hard for his team to score, but he told his players to be aggressive.
“We just had to be relentless,” Lien said of his offensive game plan. “It was attack, attack, attack and you break them down finally and then you hit a shot.”
The Wildcats hit a couple of shot early as Kierstyn Kindschy made two three pointers for her team’s first six points.
Belmont had a three-point lead before Steien scored her first basket of the game. Thompson then stepped up, helping her team take control of the game.
Thompson scored four straight points to put the Wildcats ahead by three before Andrea Waldera put back a miss, sparking a Belmont time out with about 10 minutes left in the first half.
“Abby is an absolute gem out there,” Lien said. “She can do it all: play defense, hit the three, attack. She is one of the toughest young ladies out there.”
Thompson made two three pointers off of the time out then fed Steien for a layup after a steal that put B-T ahead 24-13 with seven minutes remaining. In addition to a game-high 23 points, Thompson had five steals and three assists.
Lien said taking the early lead on Belmont “took the wind out of their sails.”
B-T had a 28-18 lead with about five minutes left in the half, but Belmont went on a run, scoring eight straight before Waldera got a basket that helped B-T maintain a two-point advantage at halftime.
The Braves run continued early in the second, but the Wildcats stayed aggressive and it paid off in the end.
Steien scored 21 — 15 of which came in the second half — and had eight assists. The team also got eight from Kindschy, six from Waldera and two apiece from Sydney Fremstad and Lexi Lofgren.
Kindschy also led the team with nine rebounds, while Waldera proved to be a force on the defensive end, blocking five shots.