By Per Peterson
Deja vu isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For the second straight season, the Tracy-Milroy-Balaton girls’ basketball team found themselves one win away from a state tournament appearance. And, once again, the only thing preventing them from packing their bags for a trip to the Cities was New London-Spicer.
With many of the same players taking the court as a year ago, the Panthers had their chance to erase a painful memory, but instead will be forced to wait yet another year to hoist the trophy that they all have their sights set on.
The well-balanced, tournament-savvy Wildcats withstood some major foul trouble and never let TMB’s defense take them out of their game en route to a 62-55 victory in Friday’s Section 3AA championship game.
“One of the things we talked about in the pre-game was 364 days ago this is right where you wanted to be — unfortunately for us, we’re seeing the same thing,” TMB coach Derek Ashbaugh said. “The girls did a real nice job all week long of preparing for the game. We went cold there for a stretch, and we didn’t quite get the game up and down (the floor) like we like. That’s tough to do against a team with really good guards.”
Ultimately, however, it wasn’t the guards who would steal the show Saturday. With all-around guard Shea Oman playing a key supporting role, this game centered around the Wildcats’ Morgan Swenson. It was her presence, or lack thereof at times, that told the story. With TMB focusing on shutting down the Wildcats’ perimeter players, it was Swenson who made the difference.
“We didn’t want to give them much room on the outside because they’re just incredible shooters,” Kirk said. “We just forced their posts to beat us and they had an amazing game. They did exactly what they need to do to win.”
Swenson, a 5” 10’ senior center, picked up two early fouls Saturday and was assessed her third at the seven-minute mark and with the game tied at 17. Without her in the game, TMB (26-4) was able to control things, to a point. The Panthers held some kind of lead for the better part of the final four minutes of the first half.
“They have great balance on the floor, and when she got into foul trouble that was a big advantage for us,” Ashbaugh said.
For the opening minutes of the second half, however, it was Swenson vs. TMB. She scored nine straight points for NLS to start the second half.
“For a big stretch there, I don’t think she missed a shot,” Ashbaugh said. “She’s a good player. She made a big difference for them offensively, but also rebounding. That little stretch was about the same time we kind of went cold. That was the difference in the game.”
A three-point play by Kaylee Kirk gave the Panthers a 42-40 cushion before Swenson picked up foul No. 4 with 11:13 left.
“We thought it was important that we attacked her and either get her into foul trouble or at least not very confident,” said Ashbaugh. “But credit their girls — the did a real nice job coming off the bench. Really good teams are able to cover some of that up.”
But thanks to a TMB cold stretch and five points from Kabrie Weber, the Panthers couldn’t take advantage of Swenson’s absence unlike they had done earlier in the game. TMB missed shot after shot as that 42-40 lead vanished and turned into a 51-43 deficit. Kendra Ludeman’s third three-pointer at the 5:18 mark brought TMB to within five points, but NLS was able to keep the lead at four or five before it got late enough to where the Wildcats could start playing keep-away and milking the clock.
“We had that little stretch there where we went real cold,” Ashbaugh said. “We were getting some decent looks, but we weren’t quite as sharp as we needed to be. But the girls kept battling the entire time; I’m really proud of their effort. It just didn’t go our way tonight.”
With time running out, the Panthers were forced to foul, and NLS hit five of six free throws to hold build an eight-point lead with just :25 left.
Syd Lanoue continued her strong postseason play for the Panthers, scoring xx points, seemingly giving TMB emotional lifts with every big basket. On this night, however, the Wildcats, whose perimeter players were, for the most part held in check by TMB’s guards, were the ones with more balance and more consistent scoring.
“They’ve got a lot of real talented players, especially on offense,” Ashbaugh said. “We did a pretty decent job, only giving up two threes — that was kind of a point of emphasis for us going into this game.”