Girls Basketball: Trip to state in the Cards?
A year after coming up one game short of reaching the Minnesota State Girls Basketball Tournament, the Willmar Cardinals find themselves on that very same doorstep once again.
The No. 2 Cardinals will play for the Section 5AAA title against No. 1 Zimmerman at 7 p.m. Thursday at Buffalo High School.
It's a game that could look very different from the first contest between the two sides earlier this season.
The Thunder came away with a 67-48 win in that Jan. 27 contest, but don't expect another game with that type of margin of victory.
"A couple things to take away from that game were that we played the night before and didn't get to practice and prepare for what they did defensively," Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson said. "We've steadily improved from that point, as well, and they took a bit of a hit with injuries."
Steadily improved the Cardinals have.
Since dropping the game to Zimmerman, Willmar has rattled off wins in 10 of its last 11 games, with the most recent one being a 58-44 victory over No. 3 Big Lake in the section semifinals.
The Thunder, meanwhile, will be without one top scorer and a dominant inside presence in forward Naomi Hagstrom, who suffered an ACL injury last month. Hagstrom scored 22 points in the meeting against the Cardinals this season.
"Defensively, they can still give you really tough looks, but they're missing a big offensive threat," Carlson said.
A tight defensive battle could be in store, with Willmar priding itself on being a stingy unit that allows just 46.4 points per game and Zimmerman throwing a tricky full-court press at opponents.
"They'll run a 2-2-1 full court with zone traps," Carlson said. "They pressure you, and their number 14, Danielle Williams, is one of the top defenders in the state. She led the state in steals last year, averaging over nine per game.
"In the half-court they run a lot of 2-3 zone and get in passing lanes with tough guards," he said. Getting lined up properly is a big key, and we've been working on that in practice. We'll have to make good, crisp passes."
Transition baskets could be Willmar's best weapon and, consequently, the Kryptonite for Zimmerman.
"That's our dagger for winning games and putting them away," Carlson said. "When they miss shots, we can get out and run and they can't set up their traps. They can set it up on makes, but if we can wear them down a little bit, it should make for a pretty exciting second half."
Playing in front of what will be a packed and loud gym, the Cardinals' experience at this stage could play a role, as well.
"Nerves are at a really good spot right now," Carlson said. "We're just preparing for the game. We're not focusing on the state tournament being on the line. We're thinking of Zimmerman and played them once this summer, once this year, last year. Focusing on the game and playing all 36 minutes (Thursday)."