The night session's first game at Williams Arena on this Championship Saturday night featured the Class AAA Championship Game pitting Park Center against Marshall. Even though this was the Pirates' first trip to the championship game; nee, the state tournament, they were the number one seed and got here by virtue of their win over Minneapolis Washburn on Thursday. The Tigers had pulled off a huge upset in their semifinal beating heavily-favored Fergus Falls so it would be interesting to see how much each team had left in the tank.
Marshall got off to a solid start in this one as junior forward Hailey Bennett knocked down a jumper from the left corner at the 17:46 mark to get the Tigers going and they would establish an 8-2 advantage by the 15:50 mark when senior forward Kenzie Beekman connected on a lay-up at the 15:50 mark. Park Center, however, would soon catch up and a "3" from freshman guard Ann Simonet from the right corner at the 14:16 mark and an offensive rebound and putback by Simonet at the 13:23 mark had the Pirates to within three trailing 11-8. Senior star forward Cayla McMorris then struck as she snared a steal and dashed the other way for a lay-up that cut the Tigers lead to 11-10 at the 13:04 mark and Park Center would eventually grab a 15-11 lead by the 11:22 mark when McMorris drained a "3" from the right corner.
Marshall would then fight their way back and a Beekman "3" from the left top area with 9:47 left had the Tigers back out in front 16-15 but a "3" by freshman reserve forward Fey Ayobamidele from the left corner allowed the Pirates to grab a 19-16 lead with 7:41 left. Marshall would eventually knot the issue at 21-all when junior forward Morgan Saugstad knocked down two free throws with 4:20 left. The Tigers 2-3 zone was making it difficult for either McMorris or lanky freshman post Mikayla Hayes to maneuver inside and Park Center seemed to sag offensively down the stretch of the first half. A "3" from Pirate freshman point guard Danielle Schaub from the left wing with 3:01 left did have Park Center back out in front 24-23 but Marshall would close the first half on a 6-0 run and a last second Tiger basket allowed Marshall to take a 29-24 lead into the locker room at the half. Park Center had a fairly balanced scoring attack led by Simonet's eight points as did Marshall as both Saugstad and Beekman tallied eight points a piece. Surprisingly, rebounds were even at 20 a piece and even more surprisingly was that Marshall committed more turnovers than Park Center; 6 to 2. Perhaps the biggest telling point was that Park Center's McMorris shot a rather dismal 3-13 in the first half. Could she step up her game in the second half?
Marshall would get its lead to seven points at 33-26 at the 16:42 mark on a score in the paint by junior forward Haley Bennett and a rebound and putback by Beekman at the 16:12 upped the lead to nine at 35-26 before Park Center slowly, ever so slowly, whittled away at the Tiger advantage. A lay-up by Simonet after a Park Center steal at the 15:06 mark and a Simonet lay-up in transition at the 13:55 mark kept Park Center within striking distance trailing 37-30. A steal and lay-up by McMorris at the 13:48 mark and a Simonet "3" from the right corner at the 11:58 mark had Park Center within five trailing 40-35. A score down low by McMcorris with 9:16 left allowed the Pirates to get back to within three trailing 46-43 with a mountain of time left.
But it seemed like, no matter how hard the Pirates tried they could never get it back to a single possession game again. Missed three-point attempts that just wouldn't go down and other missed opportunities allowed Marshall to get their lead back to five points at 48-43 with 8:02 left. A quick 4-0 burst by the Tigers highlighted by a Beekman rebound and putback with 5:10 left had Marshall up 52-43 and Park Center's hopes looked dim. But little did I or anyone else in attendance on this night have any clue as to what would take place down the stretch. Park Center Head Coach Chris VanderHyde called a timeout to try and make adjustments for his squad in a vain attempt for a comeback but this one appeared out of reach.
Somehow, the Pirates began the slow road to bringing this one back. McMorris knocked down two free throws after getting fouled with 4:51 left that trimmed the deficit to seven trailing 52-45 and with 4:12 left, Hayes was able to maneuver into the paint for a score and she got fouled in the process and the ensuing free throws suddenly had Park Center to within four trailing 52-48. Marshall's Beekman was fouled with 3:25 left but she couldn't get the front end of the one-and-one to go down and the Pirates came right back down the floor and with 2:41 left, Simonet got a jumper in the lane in transition to go down that now cut Marshall's lead to 52-50 and you could detect the panic on the faces of the Tigers. A jumper by Marshall's Bennett with 2:30 left upped the Tigers lead to 54-40 but then Park Center's Simonet struck again as she drained a clutch "3" from the left corner with 2:14 left that now had the Pirates to within one trailing 54-53. Marshall's Bennett came right back and connected on a jumper with 1:57 left to get the Tigers back up by three at 56-53. Hayes was able to get Park Center back to within two when she knocked down one charity stripe shot after getting fouled with :51.7 left but disaster seemingly struck the Pirates again with the sands of time running out on this one. First, junior guard McKenna DuBois; normally one of the offensive sparkplugs for this Park Center team, fouled out with :45.3 left and that sent Marshall junior guard Sarah Buysse to the line where she knocked down two freebies making it a two-possession game and a 60-56 Tiger lead. One the Pirates next possession with :24 left, McMorris made a strong drive and finish to get the Marshall lead down to two again at 60-58. Park Center's VanderHyde called timeout again to set up his defense but with :20.1 left, another blow to the Pirate ship was delivered when McMorris fouled out and now Park Center, without two of its best starters on the floor and a third key member; junior guard Hannah Schaub, relegated to a player/coach role as she recovers from her ACL injury, appeared to have used up its last lifeline. But just when Marshall could have put this one away for good, Buysse couldn't get her free throw to go down and with :14.1 left and one last gasp hope left, Park Center's VanderHyde called his last timeout in order to try and set up the tying or winning score. The Pirates would bring the ball down the floor; hounded by Marshall defenders and with seconds winding down, Danielle Schaub got the ball and the otherwise shy and giggly freshman off the court made a fearless move into the lane and launched a one-handed runner that kissed the glass and fell into the cylinder as the horn sounded and the Park Center contingent was going bonkers as we were now headed to overtime tied at 60-all.
In the first overtime, Marshall junior forward Callie Graff was able to connect with a lay-up that allowed the Tigers to cling to an oh-so-precarious 62-60 lead. Both Danielle Schaub and Simonet committed turnovers on the Pirates first two possessions of the first overtime period but so did Marshall's Beekman and Bennett. Finally, with 1:23 left, Simonet was able to connect on a lay-up that had things knotted up at 62 a piece but with 1:07 left, Marshall's Bennett was fouled and she was able to get two free throws out of it that once again gave the Tigers a two-point advantage at 64-62. The Pirates would be incredibly patient with the ball on their last possession of the first overtime and, with :32 left, another freshman; Hayes, would get into the spotlight as she used her 6'2" frame to drive into the lane and connect with a lay-up that once again tied the issue at 64-all. With the fans at Williams Arena going absolutely nuts, Marshall now had one last chance to try and win it. The Tigers Saugstad tried to win it as she attempted to drive the ball into the lane but the Pirate defense caused her to lose the ball as it popped out crazily out of her hands as the horn sounded ending the first overtime.
By the second overtime, most of the fans needed oxygen masks (including yours truly) to try and catch their breath as this classic wore on. Beekman was able to get into the paint for a score for the Tigers that put Marshall back out in front 66-64. Park Center's Simonet and Ayobamidele couldn't get short jumpers to go down on the Pirates ensuing possession but Marshall wasn't able to capitalize on their next possession either. With 1:48 left, Simonet was able to get one freebie to go down after getting fouled but so was Marshall's Buysse when she got hacked with 1:25 left that had the Tigers back up by two at 67-65. With Park Center seemingly facing doomsday once again and the Tigers trying desperately to hold on to the ball and milk the clock out, Simonet came out of nowhere and snared the ball away from Marshall's Buysse and dashed the other way for a lay-up that tied things up again at 67-all with the Park Center student section and fans simply going crazy. But Marshall still had one chance left and tried to craftily work the clock down. But with :03 left, Tiger sophomore reserve forward Marah Mulso turned the ball over and now the Pirates had one last chance to try and win it. Park Center's VanderHyde called a timeout to try and set something up and the Pirates got the ball to Danielle Schaub and with :00.9 left she tried to uncork the game-winning three-point attempt from the right wing but it bounced off with the issue still undecided tied up at 67-all. Who would crack first?
Marshall tried once again to gain the upper hand in the third overtime as a Beekman offensive rebound for a putback with 2:59 left had the Tigers up 69-67 but the Pirates; somehow given a second wind in all this, looked to be fresher and more determined than ever. With 2:46 left, Ayobamidele connected with a lay-up that had things tied up yet again at 69-all. Marshall's Beekman would launch an errant shot with 2:28 left and although Saugstad was able to snare the offensive rebound and give the Tigers another chance, junior reserve forward Callie Graff promptly turned the ball over to the Pirates. With 2:04 left in this thriller, the first signs of anyone cracking in this one finally appeared. Hayes went into the lane for a lay-up that the Pirates ahead in this one at 71-69 and worse yet from a Marshall perspective, Bennett committed her fifth foul of the night that forced her to the bench. Hayes was unable to put down the obligatory freebie and now the Pirates would be in the role of trying to nurse a precarious two-point advantage. With 1:08 left, Marshall's Beekman snared a steal and although a three-point attempt by Saugstad missed its mark with :43 left, Beekman was there for the offensive rebound and she promptly put a shot in that had this unbelievable game tied up at 71-all. Park Center's VanderHyde called a timeout to try and set up one last play to try and win it and end this thing once and for all. With the Pirates trying desperately to keep the ball away from a hungry Marshall defense, Simonet was fouled with :21 left. Her first free throw attempt missed its mark but she was able to get the second for a 72-71 Pirate lead. Now Marshall was faced with the dubious task of trying to get fouled to get sent to the free throw line or somehow find an opening to launch a game-winning shot. But with :12 left, an aggressive move on defense by the Pirates' Ayobamidele forced Marshall's Buysse to turn the ball over and Ayobamidele smartly got the ball to Danielle Schaub. With :06 left, Danielle Schaub was fouled by Marshall's Saugstad that sent the freshman to the line to try and ice this thing. Danielle Schaub's first free throw was good but the second one bounced off and Marshall grabbed the rebound and the Tigers raced down the floor to try and set up the game winner. But with :01 left, Buysse; trying to hurry things, turned the ball over and the Pirates dribbled out the last grains of sand in this unbelievable, incredible contest as the Park Center players, coaches, student section and fans celebrated wildly when the horn mercifully sounded as Park Center claimed their first-ever state championship with a 73-71 victory in a game that will undoubtedly go down in the annals as one of the greatest games ever. In fact, this game was the longest in girls state tournament history.
I was able to corral Park Center's VanderHyde before the official press conference afterward and asked him, "How the hell are you!" He laughed and said he was about ready to burst. When things calmed down a bit in the press conference afterward, VanderHyde said this game was arguably "a war of attrition" and somehow the Pirates found a way to survive when a lot of teams likely would have folded. VanderHyde admitted that "there was obvious concern when McMorris fouled out with DuBois already on the bench" but he couldn't help but heap a ton of praise on the group of freshmen on this team that somehow, someway, found a way to pull this squad through. He said that this win was "huge for the program" and Simonet, who led all scorers on this night with her 26 points, was referred to as "so reliable and dependable" by VanderHyde. I also had a chance to speak with Danielle Schaub afterward as well and she spoke about the play she made at the end of regulation to force the first overtime. "The play to force overtime was meant to go to (Mikayla) Hayes but I was open" she said. I also asked her about how she and her teammates found a way to get through this; with the crowd and the noise and the environment and the setting with a state championship on the line. "You have to give 110%; you have to give it your all" and the Pirates did just that. Additionally, I spoke with McMorris as well who called this win in her last game as a Park Center Pirate "Very satisgying....it means everything." When I asked her about if she was surprised at how the freshmen core had to carry the load after both she and DuBois fouled out she replied that "she wasn't shocked or surprised at all at what our freshmen did....they brought it all to the table tonight!" And so it was. This game, IMHO, will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest games ever played and I have to tip my hat to both sides at providing basketball fans with an unbelievable and unforgettable treat on this night.