The Four-Point Play: Section hoops playoffs preview
The Four-Point Play is a weekly look into four of the top storylines in area prep basketball. This week, we break down girls section basketball.
On paper (literally—this is a newspaper), Willmar is the class of Section 5AAA.
The Cardinals finished the regular season at 23-2, Central Lakes Conference champions and the sixth-ranked team in the class. According to QRF, they are 22 spots ahead of the next-best team in the section, Big Lake.
Dustin Carlson would like you to know that means next-to-nothing as the playoffs begin.
"The scary part is that everyone that talks to our kids or parents says that we're supposed to win on paper," Carlson said. "That's not the case, especially in high school sports. In high school, the best team that night is going to win. We need to be the best team each night."
The good news for Willmar is it just needs two of those nights to repeat as section champs after receiving a first-round bye.
Instead of playing on Tuesday night, the Cardinals will be spending time preparing for possible semifinal opponents come Saturday and free throw shooting. Lots and lots of free throw shooting.
"We're expecting some close games, so we're going to need to step up our game at the line," Carlson said.
Willmar's first opponent will be either fourth-seeded St. Cloud Apollo or fifth-seeded Becker. The Cardinals, undefeated in section play, went a combined 3-0 against the two this year. Apollo, led by scoring threat Lariah Washington, fell 78-73 to the Cardinals on Dec. 12 before Willmar won by 25 points on Feb. 9.
Becker could be the team that poses more matchup problems for Willmar.
The Bulldogs lost 67-52 at the Big Red Gym in the Cardinals' third game of the season, but have proven to be a thorn in the side of plenty of top teams this year. Since losing to Willmar, Becker has gone 13-10 with only one loss coming by double digits.
"They've got six kids that can light it up from the 3-point line," Carlson said. "They've got three freshmen that are maybe all faster than all of our kids."
The Bulldogs aren't afraid to shoot the rock. Example A: They put up 31 3-point attempts against the Cardinals earlier this year.
"They like to let if fly," Carlson said. "They're a scary team because of that. If they hit a bunch of threes on any night, look out."
If Willmar advances to the championship, they would likely face either second-seeded Big Lake or third-seeded Zimmerman.
Big Lake enters at 12-13, but has gone up against a tough regular season schedule and is 4-2 in section play. The Hornets are able to throw multiple scoring threats at an opponent on any given night with a five-out, motion offense.
"They're centered on getting the 3-point shot," Carlson said. "They also see if they can get to the free throw line and, if not, kick it out to a shooter. They've got a lot of kids that can score it."
Zimmerman may be out for some bad blood after Willmar upset it in the section final one year ago. The Thunder lost arguably the state's top defender in Alyssa Williams from one season ago, which has led to a drop off in the effectiveness of their full-court press.
"Defensively, they're so much different than last year," Carlson said. "They can't apply the same pressure that they did last year. The whole game plan last year revolved around taking care of the ball."
Offensively, though, Zimmerman packs a punch that they didn't have in last year's matchup.
Forward Naomi Hagstrom has returned from an ACL injury that kept her out of last year's playoffs, providing an inside-and-outside threat for Zimmerman. Add in guard Alyssa Daugherty to the mix and you have the majority of the Thunder's scoring.
"Now, the focus against them has to be stopping the scoring of their top two girls," Carlson said.
The section filled with the most area teams is also full of intrigue.
What began with seven local teams is now down to three—New London-Spicer, Litchfield and Minnewaska—with top-seeded Eden Valley-Watkins the other squad competing for the North sub-section title.
NLS received the second seed and will take on third-seeded Litchfield on Thursday at Willmar High School, renewing a Wright County Conference west rivalry in a do-or-die situation. The Wildcats took both of the meetings this season, but just by a combined 15 points.
The Wildcats is the reigning section champion, coming off a fourth-place finish at state a year ago. NLS brought in an entirely new rotation consisting mostly of underclassmen this year—save for senior guard and Ms. Basketball candidate guard Shea Oman.
After a month of finding their groove, the Wildcats appear to be clicking now, winning 12 of 13 including a first-round win over Benson.
But as the No. 41 team according to QRF and 14-13 overall, Litchfield poses a threat as the No. 3 seed with a balanced attack and solid perimeter shooting.
Eden Valley-Watkins earned the top seed with just three losses during the season, with two of them coming to the top-two ranked teams in Class AA. That other loss? New London-Spicer.
The plot thickens.
The Wildcats downed the Eagles 48-41, albeit all the way back in November and on a night where head coach Mike Dreier noted that EV-W's shots just wouldn't fall.
The winner from the north section would likely take on top-seeded Tracy-Milroy-Balaton from the south or the second seed in Martin County West.
Possibly more so than any other girls basketball section in the area, Section 3A could go in so many different ways.
That's not just lip service. It's the truth.
At 17-7, fourth-seeded Yellow Medicine East is a very good team and still alive after beating MACCRAY over the weekend, but it would have to go through top seed Minneota and the winner of Lac qui Parle Valley/Wabasso to get to the section final. The Sting went 0-3 against that group this year, losing by an average of 17 points.
Lac qui Parle Valley represents the area team with the best shot at winning the section and reaching state.
The Eagles currently sit at 25-3 and are ranked No. 7 in Follow the Rock's Class A poll. QRF ranks them No. 21 in the class, which is probably more wrong than it is right. Since losing by six points to Minneota, LQPV has rattled off nine straight wins, including a 49-41 victory over 25-2 TMB in the Camden Conference championship.
Head coach John Nolte's team is good. Of course, there is senior guard and 2,000-point scorer Kelsea Lund leading the charge as one of the best shooters the area has ever seen. Haley Wollschlager, a junior guard and Kelsea's cousin, is a do-it-all complement in the backcourt. Junior forwards Lindsay Kranz and Grace Hegland have taken big strides forward in their offensive games this year and provide the necessary size to keep the LQPV offense balanced.
The Vikings, however, are the No. 1 seed largely due to a 67-61 win over the Eagles in January. Lydia Sussner is a force in the post and has a bevy of help on the perimeter, which could make for a compelling rematch in the subsection final if both Minneota and LQPV win on Tuesday night.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to come from Minneota winning head-to-head against the Eagles was earning the top seed and, subsequently, avoiding Wabasso in the section quarterfinals.
The Rabbits have the longest active winning streak in the section at 14 games and enter the week at 20-3. Wabasso pulled away late on Saturday to down Canby by 16 points, creating for a compelling matchup with the Eagles on Tuesday in Marshall.
All three of those teams could very easily make a run through to the section final, where they would probably have to be the favorite against the winner out of the south. Southwest Minnesota Christian, last year's section champion, is the top-seeded team in the bottom half of the bracket but lost by 32 points to Minneota earlier this year. Hills-Beaver Creek holds the No. 2 seed.
Pick-six (...or 32)
This is the part of the show where I sift through all 404 girls hoops teams in Minnesota and tell you which ones I think are going to make it to the state tournament in two weeks.
Or, as I like to call it, this is the Bulletin Board Material section.
Feel free to cut out this part of the story, put it up in your locker room and then go out and prove me wrong. I await the day next week when this all backfires on me.
Asterisks denote the FPP's state champion selections.
Section 1: Lyle-Pacelli
Section 2: BOLD
Section 3: Minneota
Section 4: Mayer Lutheran
Section 5: Menahga
Section 6: Pelican Rapids
Section 7: Mountain-Iron Buhl**
Section 8: Stephen-Argyle
Section 1: Byron
Section 2: Norwood-Young America
Section 3: New London-Spicer
Section 4: Minnehaha Academy
Section 5: Maranatha Christian
Section 6: Sauk Centre**
Section 7: Proctor
Section 8: Roseau
Section 1: Northfield
Section 2: Waseca
Section 3: Academy of Holy Angels
Section 4: Mahtomedi**
Section 5: Willmar
Section 6: Robbinsdale-Cooper
Section 7: Grand Rapids
Section 8: Alexandria
Section 1: Lakeville North
Section 2: Eden Prairie
Section 3: Eastview**
Section 4: Cretin-Derham Hall
Section 5: Champlin Park
Section 6: Hopkins
Section 7: Anoka
Section 8: St. Michael-Albertville