Was over at Park Center High School again on this snowy Friday evening to take in arguably the premier girls high school game of the night in the Twin Cities - the much-anticipated clash between visiting Class AAAA #3-ranked Centennial and host Class AAA #2-ranked Park Center. These two squads would be battling not only for first place in the Northwest Suburban Conference but would also be trying to make statements as to why they should be seeded #1 in their respective sections for section play. You just knew it was on once you got settled in the bleachers and watched the teams go through their warm-ups as the energy and intensity levels were high.
In my own mind, I felt that it was imperative that Park Center come out from the opening tip as the aggressor and set the tone early; something they didn't do when they lost at Centennial earlier in the season. In this rematch, the Pirates did exactly that and it was flashy senior forward Cayla McMorris stealing the spotlight early on with a "3" from the left wing at the 17:54 mark to get things going; an offensive rebound and putback at the 17:32 mark; and scores in the paint at both the 16:51 and 16:02 marks that helped spur Park Center to an early 10-2 lead before the Cougars knew what hit them. Centennial would counter with scores from the Morris Sisters - seniors Destinee and Daizjah that helped trim the Park Center lead down to 12-7 but a lay-up by lanky freshman post Mikayla Hayes and an offensive rebound by reserve sophomore forward Olivia Peterson had the Pirates up 16-7 and Centennial Head Coach Greg Amundson tried to pull the plug on this Park Center offensive with a thirty second timeout but the Pirates had no intention of cooling their heels just yet. Two more scores by McMorris propelled Park Center to a 22-13 lead with 8:41 left and, for the moment anyway, the Pirates were in firm control.
Despite the shaky start, Centennial refused to panic and they slowly chipped away at the Park Center advantage; mainly by making a concerted effort to get the ball down low to their 5'11" senior post Jill Conrad; not the tallest post player out there perhaps but certainly one of the strongest for sure. Back to back Conrad scores with 8:01 and 7:17 left pulled the Cougars back to within five at 22-17. Sophomore reserve guard Nan Glinsek's jumper from the right baseline with 5:20 left drew Centennial even closer; trailing 24-20. Park Center would make another push; a lay-up by speedy junior guard McKenna DuBois that got her fouled and allowed her to sink the ensuing freebie put the Pirates back up by seven at 27-20. A score in the paint by Hayes with 4:31 left and a DuBois "3" from the right wing that caromed perfectly off the glass and into the cylinder seemingly had Park Center back in firm control again up 32-24 but back to back scores by Centennials Daizjah Morris - a score in the paint with 3:15 left and a jumper from the left wing with 2:07 left trimmed the Pirate lead down to 32-28 and then twin sister Destinee Morris connected with a short jumper off the glass with 1:47 left that brought the Cougars to within a single possession trailing 32-30. Peterson would make one charity stripe shot for Park Center with 1:27 left but given the rough start the Cougars endured in the opening minutes they could handle being down 33-30 on the road in a game as important as this at the half.
Centennial looked to open things up a bit offensively once the second half got underway and to do that they were going to have to get the Morris twins - Destinee and Daizjah - more involved in the offense. Trouble was, Park Center's McMorris was matching everything the Centennial duo was trying to do to edge closer. A drive and finish by Daizjah was sandwiched by McMorris scores at the 16:51 and 15:13 marks. A score in the paint by Centennial's Conrad at the 14:59 mark was countered by a short jumper by Park Center's Hayes some twenty seconds later. Daizjah Morris wheeled and dealed into the paint for a score for the Cougars at the 14:29 mark but that was quickly matched by a McMorris lay-up at the 14:16 mark that prevented Centennial from ever threatening to usurp control of this game.
Moreover, Centennial struggled mightily from the perimeter all night long as they never could find that one big shot when they were close that might have changed the complexion of the game at least. And that allowed the Pirates to keep their grips on control and momentum. A McMorris lay-up at the 12:20 mark expanded the lead to 45-38 and an encore performance in transition by the future Wisconsin Badger pushed the lead to 49-40 at the 10:51 mark. Then it was DuBois lighting up the scoreboard again with a "3" from the top of the key with 10:06 left that had the Pirates up 52-40. Centennial would counter briefly with a Conrad score in the paint with 9:13 left and two charity stripe shots after getting fouled. Glinsek would play a thief in the night by stealing a Pirate inbound pass and getting a shot off the glass to go with 8:34 left that whittled the Park Center advantage down to 52-46 and a lay-up by reserve junior forward Jaycie Gerding drew the Cougars even closer with 8:07 left. But again the Pirates never panicked. Junior point guard Hannah Schaub calmly drove in for a lay-up with 7:45 left that spurted another Park Center push that would be decisive. Hayes connected with a jumper in transition with 7:06 left and then a "3" by freshman guard Ann Simonet from the right corner with 6:02 left nearly brought the house down and had Park Center up by double digits again at 60-50. Centennial would once more try to fight their way back into things with two Conrad scores but a "3" from the top of the key by DuBois with 3:21 left seemed to seal the deal for the Pirates on this Friday night. McMorris would get another lay-up with 2:50 left and late Centennial scores - a "3" by senior guard Katie Werth with 2:30 left and a steal and lay-up the other way by senior forward Jasmin Bretoi with :49 left - would not be enough as Park Center celebrated a huge 72-62 win over their conference rival.
An elated Park Center Head Coach Chris VanderHyde was incredibly proud of his team's effort on this night as you can imagine and offered up what he though was key in his team's win: "We had to take them off the spot on defense; we couldn't just let them spot up and take the shots they wanted." And when Centennial made runs at the Pirates? "Keeping our composure on offense was critical" VanderHyde said. The only fly in the ointment for Park Center on this night was the rather dismal free throw shooting - only 10-25 - something that undoubtedly will be worked on when VanderHyde nodded his head in acknowledgement. Still, the Pirates have proven on multiple occasions this year that they are more than ready to answer the bell in big games against top-flight competition and with McMorris leading the way, the Pirates may very well have more to celebrate than just a Northwest Suburban Conference title.