The West Central Area girls basketball team came into its first-ever state tournament on Tuesday in Perham looking like an underdog for those who had not seen this team play down the stretch this year, but probably not to those who had.
The Knights, seeded fourth among four teams in the North portion of the state quarterfinals, went through Minnesota Basketball News’ second-ranked team in the state in Henning during the section championship. That was after beating undefeated Hancock in the semifinals.
That’s why WCA was not intimidated with fourth-ranked and the North’s top-seeded Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa waiting for them in the state quarterfinals. The Jaguars (22-1) have one loss all season, and it came by just four points against top-ranked and undefeated Minneota on Feb. 20. The Knights (17-6) pushed them as hard as almost any other team all season, but BBE made enough plays to finish with a 76-71 win and advance to the state semifinals.
“Hancock could play with this team, and so could Henning,” WCA head coach Eric Schoenbauer said. “We just had a few mental lapses there that cost us the game in the end. We had shots that were falling right away that didn’t fall in the end.”
The Jaguars stretched a one-possession game into a 67-58 lead with 5:59 left, but they had to sweat out the final seconds. WCA 8th-grader Mya Foslien came off the bench to score 11 points, and eight of those came in the closing minutes.
Foslien hit back-to-back threes that pulled the Knights to within 72-68 with 2:36 left. Her third made jump shot late in the game was right in front of the three-point line at the top of the key, and cut WCA’s deficit to 73-71 with less than a minute to play.
“She came up huge,” Schoenbauer said of Foslien. “She has that rare self confidence as an 8th-grader to come in and step up. It reminds me of (WCA junior guard) Lexi Bright. It’s very humbling as a coach to see we have those young players.”
The Knights were forced to foul with 24.1 seconds left. Twice the Jaguars missed free throws that would have made it a two-possession game, but both times they created steals almost immediately after WCA gathered the rebound.
“You can’t fault them,” Schoenbauer said. “They were trying to make a play and get it to somebody who we were trying to run a set for to get them open on the back side or get (another player) open. It was a phenomenal effort. I’m glad they came ready to play. We just didn’t execute quite enough to make it come to fruition for us.”
West Central Area built an early 22-13 lead, but three turnovers that led to six BBE points at the end of the half let the Jaguars take a 34-33 advantage into the break.
BBE sophomore guard Abby Berge had a game-high 27 points, and Bright almost matched her with 23 for WCA despite battling foul trouble down the stretch.
The Knights never panicked in their first trip to the state tournament. Schoenbauer said there were nerves at play for some of the girls, but they found ways to play through it.
“They’re just accustomed to crowds, especially at the end here,” Schoenbauer said. “They’re able to close out the noise and listen to each other and work together. I wouldn’t say they were intimidated at all. They had a game plan, they stuck to it and did very, very well.”
The Knights have three seniors on their roster in Brynn Fernholz, Brooke Anderson and Chloe LaRue. West Central Area made its postseason push with a lot of underclassmen leading the way, which has this team excited about the future.
“We definitely do (have a lot of talent back). That’s something I hope we can capitalize on,” Schoenbauer said. “Those young kids, I hope they take it as now it’s time to push. Now it’s time to get stronger, finish growing a little and get after it. If we can get everyone on Lexi’s level or close to it, we’re going to be very dangerous at whatever level we’re playing at.”
The Knights will find out exactly what section they will play in next season in a couple of weeks, but they already know they are making the jump up to the Class AA level. That will challenge the program, but the returning players have the momentum of a historic season to build on heading into this offseason.
“I feel like we are prepared to move to that level,” Schoenbauer said. “Now if you ask me to go play the No. 2 or 3 ranked team in 3A, I don’t know if we’re ready for that yet. But for AA, I’m pretty sure we’re ready to go.”
WCA 33 38 - 71
BBE 34 42 - 76
WCA SCORING - Macy Grosz - 4; Mya Foslien - 11; Brynn Fernholz - 7; Sydney Ulrich - 3; Lexi Bright - 23; Elizabeth Rustan - 14; Claire Stark - 9
BBE SCORING - Karsee Kampsen - 4; Jackie Lindsay - 9; Allie Dingmann - 2; Liz French - 4; Abby Berge - 27; Josie Knutson - 13; Allisa Knight - 11; Karissa Jones - 6