WILLMAR — It was far from perfect, but the Willmar girls basketball team's record remains just that.
The Cardinals survived a poor shooting night and a multiple cold spells, using a late comeback to beat Albany 45-40 in a Heritage Bank WildCard Tournament semifinal on Wednesday at Willmar High School.
Abby Berskow hit the game-winning free throws with one minute to play and scored 10 points to tie for the team- high for Willmar, which finished the game on an 11-0 run.
The Cardinals improved to 7-0 on the season and will face Minnehaha Academy on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m in a title game featuring two of the top teams in the state. Willmar entered the week ranked No. 3 in Class AAA, with the Redhawks at No. 5 in Class AA.
Albany held a 40-34 lead with 2:33 to play after a pair of free throws, capping a 19-4 run over a 10-minute stretch.
"I wasn't feeling really good at that point," Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson said. "Nothing was falling and they were hitting a bunch of big shots."
The Cardinals were facing their biggest test of the season. They buckled down defensively and passed it.
After two free throws by Cayle Hovland, who matched Berskow with 10 points despite shooting 1-for-13 from the field, brought Willmar within four points, Madi Linbo drained a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 40-39 with 1:41 to play.
"We weren't finding a way to score, and then Madi steps up and drills a big 3," Carlson said. "We needed a big shot and she delivered it, definitely."
Berskow sunk the go-ahead free throws after coming away with a steal to give the Cardinals an advantage at 41-40—the team's first lead in over five minutes.
Linbo then forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass and hit two free throws of her own to extend the lead to three points with 25 seconds remaining.
Albany had a look at a game-tying 3-pointer with 13 seconds to go but left it short and Hovland iced the game on the free throw line at the other end.
For the game, the Cardinals made 16 of 19 free throws attempts, compared to just 4-for-8 from the Huskies.
"Making clutch free throws was what put the game away for us," Carlson said.
"84 percent there is huge."
While Willmar's offense woke up from its dormant state late, with 11 points in just over the final two minutes of the game, make no bones about it: the record remains undefeated because of the defense.
The Cardinals forced six consecutive empty possessions from the Huskies after they took their biggest lead of the night at 40-34 and allowed just .816 points per possession on the night.
"Credit to the girls, they really stepped it up on the defensive end tonight," Carlson said. "We were much better in being in good position on help defense. In the first half we let them rebound a little too much, but over second half we took care of the rebounds."
The field goal differential—41 percent for Albany and 22.2 percent for Willmar—would generally indicate that the Cardinals should have had no chance, but turnovers to go along with the charity stripe differential made the difference. The Huskies turned the ball over 21 times to the Cardinals' 10.
"I didn't even think we shot 20 percent," Carlson said. "Credit to them, they played great defense and didn't give us good looks near the rim. And then it felt they drained it every time they were open."
The Cardinals scored .808 points per possession in the first half and .882 for the game.
Willmar led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but a 9-0 closing run brought Albany within 21-19 at halftime.
Willmar once again appeared to be in prime position to pull away for the win with a hot start to the second half to claim a 30-21 lead, but then its shooting went as cold as the frigid air outside the gym.
13 consecutive possessions and nearly eight minutes went by without any points for the Cardinals, allowing the Huskies to unleash a 14-0 spurt, capped by Paige Reuter's 3-pointer to go up 35-30 with 6:01 remaining.
"I thought there was either a lid on the rim in that stretch or maybe we were trying to shoot golf balls into the clown's mouth and they kept shooting them back out, like the Adam Sandler movie," Carlson said. "We were really trying hard in the second half and playing with more energy but were super tense around basket."
Kathryn Sands scored 10 points to lead the Huskies, who entered the game ranked No. 8 according to QRF in Class AA.
Willmar 45, Albany 40
Albany (6-2) 19 21 — 40
Willmar (7-0) 21 24 — 45
ALBANY - Scoring: Amanda Kollodge 6, Paige Rueter 8, Paige Meyer 8, Brenna Mellesmoen 6, Tiffany Freyman 2, Kathryn Sands 10 ... 3-point shots: Kollodge 2, Rueter 2, Sands 1 ... Rebound leader: NA ... Assist leader: NA ... Steal leader: NA
WILLMAR - Scoring: Abby Berskow 10, Katelyn Murphy 2, Carly Magnuson 3, Caitlin Ogdahl 3, Sadie Raitz 2, Madi Linbo 9, Hannah Johnson 6, Cayle Hovland 10 ... 3-point shots: Berskow 2, Magnuson 1, Ogdahl 1, Linbo 1 ... Rebound leader: Wedel 9, Hovland 8 ... Assist leader: Berskow 2, Wedel 2 ... Steal leader: Johnson 4