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Girls Basketball: Reality strikes

Curt Hogg / Tribune Willmar guard Hannah Johnson drives past her defender to the basket during the Section 5AAA title game against Zimmerman on March 9. 1 / 3
Curt Hogg / Tribune Willmar guard Hannah Johnson goes up for a shot during the Section 5AAA final against Zimmerman on March 9. 2 / 3
Curt Hogg / Tribune Grace Sawyer of Willmar rises up for a shot during the Cardinals' Section 5AAA title game against Zimmerman on March 9. 3 / 3

It may still feel surreal for the Willmar girls' basketball team, but once the Target Center spotlight is shining down on it on Tuesday night, the reality will strike: the Cardinals are competing in the Class AAA Minnesota State Girls Basketball Tournament.

Coming off the emotional high of winning the Section 5AAA title to advance to state, Willmar will open up with a first round game against top-seed Orono at 6 p.m.

"The girls were pretty exhausted for a couple of days," Carlson said. "Even Saturday we were dragging a little bit at practice. There has been good refocusing, we had a good day and got prepared for another day. That's the tough part: coming down after such a high. Seeing them reach their goal was pretty special."

After a random draw resulted in the Cardinals having to take on the QRF No. 1 team rather than downplay or back away from the challenge presented by Orono, the Cardinals are embracing a tough first-round draw.

"We're excited for the challenge," Carlson said. "If you're going to win some games down there, you've got to beat the top teams. You might as well just beat them right away when you're playing really well.

"It's not a David vs. Goliath scenario. We're coming off some of our best games this season."

Carlson didn't have to look too far back in history to find motivation for his team. Last season, top-seed Hutchinson lost in the first round.

"Last year, Hutchinson was number one and they went down," Carlson said. "[Orono] will have all the pressure on them. They're the number one seed and expected to win championship, so we're going to do down and give it all we have."

Willmar, which enters having won 11 of its last 12 games, appears to be playing its best basketball at the perfect time. No performance may have been better than the one put on display last Thursday when the Cardinals topped Zimmerman 63-51 in the section final.

"We're playing pretty good basketball," Carlson said. "We just played a couple of our best games right now, and what we're running is pretty similar to what we've done all year. The kids feel pretty comfortable and we know that the effort is going to be there tomorrow."

As they have all season, the Cardinals will not rely on just one, or even two, players to carry the team. Heidi Sellmann led the way with 9.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but four other players—Cayle Hovland (7.83), Hannah Johnson (7.83), Carly Wedel (6.76) and Grace Sawyer (6.12)—each averaged over six points per game.

While the Cardinals hope that their balanced offense can create for scouting problems for the Spartans, they are prepared as possible for what Orono will throw at them in terms of schemes.

"They can score points in the half court really well." Carlson said. "They have two kids in particular that can shoot and get to the basket. They're a little bit stronger than what we're used to. They look to get them those two the ball, and they can create off the dribble and they can also shoot.

"Defensively, there will be a lot of zones. They will mix it up based on a make or miss between a 1-2-2 and a 2-3 zone. We've been practicing a lot against those, and they don't pressure a full-court."

What can't be accounted for just yet, though, is playing on a much bigger stage than any high school gym at the Target Center.

"There's going to be an adjustment there," Carlson said. "There are the different hoops and an open background, so we may adjust the warm ups to get more shots in. I don't know if it's hit them yet where they're playing. Once we get there, we'll be plenty early to walk around and get feel for it."

If the court and the different background has any effect on the teams' jump shots, Carlson hopes it would have a greater impact on the Spartans, who feature All-Metro first-team member and Yale recruit Tori Andrew.

"We're not a huge jump shooting team, but they rely more on the jumper, so maybe it can affect them," Carlson said.

Willmar will receive a pep rally-styled send off at the high school at 11:15 a.m. before the team bus hits the road for Minneapolis. Support from the town will be on en route later in the afternoon, as six fan buses are scheduled to transport Cardinals fans to the Target Center.

Curt Hogg

Curt Hogg is a sports reporter at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minnesota. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. 

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