West Central Area girls basketball head coach Eric Schoenbauer felt reassured that his team this year is different after they picked up a 46-43 win at Parkers Prairie on Monday night.
In a sluggish night offensively, the Knights (18-7) found a way to beat a Section 6A contender in Parkers Prairie (15-7) on the road.
“We had one of our worst shooting percentages, and had some uncharacteristic turnovers in the first half,” Schoenbauer said. “To battle your way back from down 10 in the second half and win a game like this is huge. I hope they believe that we are building something special this season.”
The Panthers held the Knights to 15 points in the first half. At one point, WCA’s standout guard, Lexi Bright, had three points on 1-for-9 shooting. For the first 18 minutes, Parkers Prairie looked like the same group of Panthers that made it to the section championship game last winter.
“We’ve been playing very well, and that’s how we want to play in the first half,” Parkers Prairie head coach John Noga said. “They got us to play faster than we wanted in the second half. We were doing things we shouldn’t be, and they deserve credit for getting us to play that way.”
The Panthers opened up a 37-27 lead midway through the second half behind the quality shot selection from Faith Alberts and Emily Benzinger. They combined for 23 points in the game to lead much of the offense for Parkers Prairie.
“Emily knows what she should do when she gets the ball,” Noga said. “She’s good at catching and shooting. Sometimes I tell her to take the wide-open layup. Down the stretch of this season, we’ve had balanced scoring. We’ve had multiple people in double figures, which is great because that’s what we’re going to need come tournament time.”
Late in the second half, Bright started seeing more shots go in. With 3:30 left in the game, WCA’s 11-point deficit had dwindled to three. After back-to-back missed three-pointers, Bright tied the game with her second deep ball of the night.
Parkers Prairie went four consecutive offensive trips without scoring that allowed the Knights to creep back into the game. After tying the game, the Panthers left Bright open at the top of the arch, where she gave WCA its first lead in the second half.
“She’s clutch,” Schoenbauer said. “When she was 1-for-9, we just kept thinking that the next time she’s going to shoot, it would turn around. It did in the second half. Those two shots she hit put us in a big spot. Then we had Hailey Bennett hit two big free throws at the end there. It was a bunch of clutch plays.”
The Panthers trailed by three with under 30 seconds left. They worked the ball around the perimeter but struggled to find an open look. Before time expired, Ana Marquardt threw up a last-second heave to tie but came up short.
“The girls kept faith in what they were doing,” Schoenbauer said. “There were a lot of times they could’ve rolled over and quit. They didn’t do that. They picked up a win over a good team in a tight game.”
Noga is confident in the Panthers postseason experience. With the Section 6A tournament right around the corner, he believes the Panthers will play their best basketball.
“All of these little stepping stones during the season lead to the postseason,” he said. “We see different teams and what they do defensively. We see a lot of pressure defenses. In all of the years I’ve coached, I haven’t seen as much full-court press as I have this year. We have to find open people, and there are a few times where we could’ve found them tonight. I’m confident they will learn from this.”
The Knights are currently on top of the Section 6A-South standings, according to the QRF on Minnesota-scores.net. With one game left in the regular season, Schoenbauer is ready to put the sloppiness behind them and get back to the basics in practice.
“We shot 47% on the free-throw line, by far our worst of the season,” he said. “We had three games without any practice. I think that might have had something to do with the way we shot tonight. We knew we had three tough games to end the year. It’s always a grind in the end.”