Got over to the University of Minnesota's venerable Williams Arena early on this Thursday to get ready and settled in for the much-anticipated high noon showdown between #4 seed Minneapolis Washburn and #1 seed Park Center. This would be a game of contrasts as the Millers fortunes revolve around 6'4" senior post and Iowa-bound Chase Coley while the Pirates have a bevy of speedy, athletic players with senior forward and Wisconsin-bound Cayla McMorris leading the way. Both student sections were in early as well and you could just tell that it was on!!!!
There would be no fooling around or no cat and mouse games with 2-3 zones or slowdown in this one once the opening tip took place. This was man-to-man in your face defense from both sides. Washburn took a 4-2 lead on a jumper from junior guard Emma Shepherd from the left wing shortly after the opening tip and Coley was able to connect on a one-handed jumper in the lane at the 16:24 mark. Another Shepherd jumper; this one from the right corner at the 14:27 mark made it a 6-2 game before Park Center freshman guard Ann Simonet's basket shortly afterward cut the Miller's lead to 6-4. Washburn would then proceed to go on a 6-2 run fueled by a score in the paint by Coley at the 13:00 mark and a short jumper from senior reserve forward Natalie Holdahl at the 11:24 mark but the Pirates would then get on a 6-0 run of their own highlighted by a steal and lay-up by McMorris at the 10:51 mark and two Simonet lay-ups. A McMorris "3" from the right wing with 9:36 left had Park Center up 15-14.
Washburn's Holdahl would knock down a "3" from the right top with 7:22 left for a 19-17 Miller lead but a steal and jumper off the glass by Park Center's McMorris enabled the Pirates to grab a 20-19 lead with 6:23 left. McMorris would go off on another transition attempt with 5:56 left but got tangled up with Washburn's senior guard Aliyah Wilson and Wilson took the worst of it as she was down with a possible knee injury and had to be helped off the court and down to the locker room. The Pirates would extend their lead to a four-point advantage at 25-21 with 3:30 left and a turnaround jumper in the lane by lanky freshman post Mikayla Hayes with 3:13 left made it a 27-21 ballgame. Park Center looked to be in control somewhat by this point but a late Washburn burst changed that mindset. Sophomore reserve guard Shai'Anye Wesley connected on a lay-up with 2:14 left and two other Miller scores; one with 1:07 left and a Coley "3" from the right top area with just :09 left brought Washburn to within one trailing 29-28 once the halftime buzzer sounded. McMorris led the Park Center attack with 12 points while Simonet was surprisingly right behind with 8 points. Coley's 13 points paced the Millers and Washburn also held a slight advantage on the boards at 21-18.
Park Center would get off to a very good start once the second half got underway as McMorris grabbed a steal at the 17:28 mark and connected on a short shot off the glass and a score down low by Hayes at the 16:47 mark made it a 33-28 Pirate lead. Another Simonet lay-up at the 16:26 mark and another Hayes score down low had Park Center up 37-30 by the 15:53 mark and an offensive rebound and putback by Hayes at the 15:09 mark maintained the seven-point advantage at 39-32. Two free throws by Washburn junior point guard Lucia Renikoff and a Coley lay-up in transition at the 13:31 mark helped the Millers crawl back to within three trailing 39-36. A "3" by the Miller's Holdahl from the right wing at the 11:30 mark allowed Washburn to creep even closer trailing 41-39.
Park Center would manage to get on another push as a McMorris pull-up jumper with 8:33 left helped the Pirates regain a five-point edge at 46-41 and a pretty drive into the line and finish off the glass by freshman guard Danielle Schaub with 7:36 left maintained that five-point edge at 48-43. A "3" from the right corner by McMorris got the lead up to 51-43 with 5:22 left and now Washburn was under some duress to try and bring this one back. Two McMorris scores had Park Center up 54-47 and seemingly in the safe zone with 1:40 left but this Washburn team still had a wisp of hope when Coley got into the paint for a score with :55 left and then Holdahl uncorked a "3" from the right corner with :42 left that brought the Millers to a single possession trailing 58-55. Nerve-racking time for Park Center to be sure but when they needed to get the charity stripe shots late they got them. Simonet and junior guard McKenna DuBois did what they had to do late from the free throw line and Park Center scored a narrow 63-59 win that sends the Pirates to their first-ever state title game.
A very happy and excited Park Center Head Coach Chris VanderHyde said he was "excited for the girls" after this win. VanderHyde also thought his squad handled the nerves better in this game than they did the first. "There were a lot of nerves" he admitted "but they handled it better today." About McMorris who led all scorers with 26 points before fouling out very late: She steps up on the big stage....she wants this so bad." He also sang praises about his guard play saying "Our guards are phenominal." VanderHyde had no preference on who the Pirates get in the state title game but did say that "We need to be ready and have a game plan." I also had a chance to ask Danielle Schaub on how she handled this environment with the loud student sections. She giggled a bit and said, "I like the pressure....it didn't bother me." She also added that "I think we can win it all." I also had an opportunity to ask the Wisconsin-bound McMorris about the big steals she came up with early in this game. "It's instinct and I'm always reading their (her opponents) eyes." She definitely did that today and now the Pirates find themselves one game away from hoisting a state title trophy.