Alexandria's rally falls just short as new section-rival Willmar uses 9 threes to get out with a win
Alexandria almost erased a 12-point deficit in the final five minutes, but Willmar held on with some big free throws down the stretch. It's a matchup between two programs that are consistently Central Lakes Conference contenders, along with Fergus Falls, and now will play out of the same Section 8-3A field this season.
The Alexandria and Willmar girls basketball teams have battled each other for positioning atop the Central Lakes Conference for many years.
Now with two good programs that know each other so well, it seems only fitting that they will play in the same section tournament too. Willmar moved into Section 8-3A this season after playing out of Section 5-3A for many years.
It would not surprise many people if both Willmar and Alexandria met up in an important game deep in the playoffs this March. In the first of two games in the regular season between the two, Willmar escaped Alexandria with a 64-56 win on Tuesday.
“All of our girls played really free with their shooting,” Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson said. “They let it rip when they were open, and you make more shots when you’re not nervous about whether you should shoot or not shoot. That really helped our offensive game, and then I think we took away what they’re really good at, which is attacking the rim.”
Willmar broke out of a mini offensive slump after two losses to start the season against Orono and Brainerd where they scored 44 and 34 points. They knocked down nine threes in Alexandria. Sophomore Kenedee Salonek and senior Ellary Lange had three each, while senior Grace Haugen hit two triples, and senior Samantha Christoffer added one.
“We found out in the first two games what we’re trying to improve ourselves on,” Carlson said. “We have a lot of fight in us. Tonight, every time we had a two-point lead, all of a sudden somebody knocks down a big shot. That was clutch.”
Alexandria freshman forward Hadley Thul has scored in double figures in all four games this season, but she battled foul trouble against Willmar. Thul fouled out with 5:25 left after scoring 10 points. Willmar’s lead stood at 55-43 at that point.
The Cardinals did not quit. They cut the deficit to 59-53 with 2:15 left after two Chloe Scholl free throws. A Tessa McGrane free throw and an Elle Heydt layup after a steal then made it 59-56 with 1:04 left.
Alexandria followed that up with two consecutive steals defensively that gave them a couple chances in a one-possession game. An Ella Sayre shot near the basket hung on the rim and fell out. Willmar 8th-grader Brielle Ogdahl then hit two big free throws with almost 30 seconds left to make it a 61-56 lead for her team again.
“We started taking it to the hole and drawing fouls,” Scholl said of Alexandria’s comeback attempt. “The refs were calling a lot, and we made our free throws and got some easy buckets. We wanted to pick it back up because we know we can compete with them.”
Alexandria used a frenetic pace on defense to create some looks in transition offensively late, but Willmar did a good job of slowing them down with a 3-2 zone for much of the game.
“They’re so talented with the ball, getting down hill and getting to the rim,” Carlson said. “We just figured that playing man-to-man, we’re going to get beat off the dribble a lot so we wanted to throw something different at them. Tonight it worked. (Alexandria coach) Wendy (Kohler) is a solid coach, so it probably wouldn’t work the next time. We’ll have to figure something else out.”
Five seniors started for Willmar as Jaida Reiman led three players in double figures with 13, while Ellary Lange had 11 and Ella Shinn had 10.
Scholl led Alexandria with 12 points, which included 8 made free throws. She is part of three freshmen starters for the Cardinals with Hadley Thul and guard Allie Haabala. Fellow freshman guard MaCee Linow was one of the first players off the bench as she hit three first-half triples to keep Alexandria within 27-25 at the break.
The whole Alexandria lineup is full of players seeing their first varsity playing time or getting more minutes than they did a year ago. The Cardinals are 2-2 and both of those losses were one-possession games down the stretch.
“We’re all starting to settle in and play with each other,” Scholl said. “We’re starting to play how we can play…We’ll just get more comfortable with the ball and know what each player can do with the ball and play to our strengths.”
Willmar has consistently posted winning records in recent years. They made the state tournament in 2017 and 2018, but were part of a section that included last year’s Class 3A state champions in Becker.
The move into Section 8 this season puts Willmar into more familiar territory against opponents it sees often in Detroit Lakes, Alexandria, Rocori, Little Falls and Sauk Rapids-Rice.
“I think it’s a really good move,” Carlson said. “I hesitate to say it’s a great move because you’re moving into a section with a powerhouse program with Alexandria, but Becker has had such talented kids. That’s a tough route to get to the state tournament with a team that’s been in the state championship game three straight years. So moving out of there and coming to some familiar opponents is what adds to our benefit. Not necessarily the teams we’re playing, but we know what they’re like. We know their kids, we know what they’re doing.”
Alexandria is the back-to-back champions of Section 8-3A. The Cardinals have played some important head-to-head games with Willmar in the CLC over the years. It won’t be surprising if they meet up on an even bigger stage in the section playoffs down the road.
“We sure hope we get to play them in the biggest moments of the season,” Carlson said. “That’s what both of our programs strive for. Winning conference championships is fun, but I think for both of us, our end goal is to win that section final and make a state tournament appearance. That’s where you create some unreal memories, and the girls will remember those forever.”
WILLMAR 64, ALEXANDRIA 56
ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Ella Steussy - 5; Elle Heydt - 5; Tessa McGrane - 8; Hadley Thul - 10; Chloe Scholl - 12; MaCee Linow - 9; Allie Haabala - 1; Lilly Thul - 4; Ella Sayre - 2
WILLMAR SCORING - Samantha Christoffer - 7; Brielle Ogdahl - 3; Grace Haugen - 6; Ellary Lange - 11; Zoe Schroeder - 5; Kenedee Salonek - 9; Jaida Reiman - 13; Ella Shinn - 10