The Alexandria girls basketball team has played some good out-of-conference and out-of-section teams this season to ready itself for the playoffs, and Saturday might have been the toughest test yet.
Becker is 20-2 now and ranked second in the Class AAA state polls after finishing second at the state tournament a year ago. The Bulldogs showed why they’ve earned that ranking during the Breakdown Winter Lakes Classic at AAHS by holding off the now 16-7 Cardinals in a 67-59 game.
“I always tell the girls that iron sharpens iron,” Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler said. “If you want to be the best, you have to play the best. At the end of the day, if you play the best you can play and you learn something along the way, you win every game. I loved how our girls were fearless today. We went nose to nose with a Becker team that finished second in the state and has virtually everybody back.”
Alexandria never backed away from the Bulldogs, despite Becker having chances to pull away. Senior guard Mia McGrane made three straight buckets to pull the Cardinals to within 25-22 with six minutes left before halftime.
Becker responded by going into the break on a 7-0 run to grab a 37-24 lead. The Bulldogs then came right out of halftime on a quick 5-0 burst to build its biggest lead of the day.
That’s when Alexandria fought back.
“I think the biggest thing we took away is we can battle with these teams,” Alexandria junior guard Mataya Hoelscher said. “We know we have to play this way every game. Every regular season game left and then the playoffs. We take a lot of positives from this, even though we lost.”
The Cardinals’ Ella Grove cut their deficit to 10 points with 11 minutes left with two free throws, but Becker junior guard Julia Bengtson drained a three on the following possession. That was the story of the game as the Bulldogs responded to each Alexandria attempt to get all the way back.
Back-to-back Lilly Horn threes with almost 7:30 left got the game to within 55-49 for the Cardinals, but Megan Gamble got a couple free throws the next time down. It was again a six-point game with 4:22 left after a Grove bucket, but Bengtson had another answer with a quick layup after a timeout.
“That was the kind of fight we want to see,” Kohler said. “Our slogan is ‘set unwavering expectations.’ Every year the faces change, but the expectations don’t change. We lost three key components to our team last year to graduation. We’ve taken a few lumps that maybe are hard lumps to swallow against good teams, but I feel like this team is ready to turn the corner. They’ve really learned, and they were pretty solid today.”
Becker has length and athleticism at nearly every spot on the court. The Bulldogs used that to hurt the Cardinals on the glass at times, but that is generally the kind of size the Cardinals will face if they are to make a state tournament this year.
Size is one thing that Alexandria does not have a lot of after losing depth in the post last year from the graduation of Emily Jones and McKenzie Duwenhoegger. The Cardinals are continuing to find their way around that against bigger teams like they saw on Saturday.
“We’ve got to rely on our speed and our shooting,” Hoelscher said. “We have a lot of that. I know we’re missing length, but we can still get out, rebound, run transition.”
Hoelscher was one of four Alexandria players in double figures as she put in 10 points. Grove had a team-high 18, and Mia McGrane and Horn each chipped in 11.
Becker got a game-high 22 from junior guard Julia Bengtson. She made big plays much of the day when the Bulldogs needed her to. Junior forward Megan Gamble added 16 points, and sophomore guard Adeline Kent finished with 13.
Kohler has challenged the Cardinals in recent days to sharpen up defensively as they try to be playing their best basketball down the stretch. Alexandria held Becker to 10 points below its season average in scoring.
The Cardinals will take those positives away from this game with just three more regular-season contests left on the schedule before the Section 8AAA playoffs.
“We’re really pushing the girls to find another level of play, and today was against a really good Becker team,” Kohler said. “That was a state tournament game. I told the girls we want to play them again, but we’ve got to do all the little things right as we continue through the season.”
ALEXANDRIA 24 35 - 59
BECKER 37 30 - 67
ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Jaya Hatlestad - 3; Mia McGrane - 11; Ella Grove - 18; Myah Kremer - 2; Mataya Hoelscher - 10; Lilly Horn - 11; Summer Gerhardt - 4
BECKER SCORING - Adeline Kent - 13; Maren Westin - 5; Alayna Lindquist - 7; Julia Bengtson - 22; Dani Nuest - 3; Megan Gamble - 16; Ayla Brown - 1