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State Basketball: Cards are 25-2 for a reason

Willmar's Abby Berskow eyes the rim before shooting a runner during the Section 5AAA final against Zimmerman. Curt Hogg / Tribune

As the Willmar girls basketball team opens up its second straight trip to the Class AAA state tournament on Wednesday, head coach Dustin Carlson will have a simple message for his team.

"You went 25-2 this year for a reason."

Because of that regular-season success, the fifth-seeded Cardinals will be entering their quarterfinal against fourth-seeded DeLaSalle with a different mindset than at this time last year.

"It's a drastically different feeling this time around," Carlson said. "That includes myself, I take the blame for just being elated to be down there and getting caught up in the compliments and being overwhelmed by the excitement of making it to state."

At the outset of the season that saw Willmar win the Central Lakes Conference and Section 5AAA titles, the Cardinals had one more big goal—to win their first-round game at state.

"That would be the highlight of the season," Carlson said.

Standing in Willmar's way, of course, are the 19-8 Islanders, who knocked off top-seeded Mahtomedi 47-41 in their section final.

DeLaSalle will bring size and strength to the Williams Arena floor for the noon tipoff, which, along with the Islanders' full-court trap press, has been the focus of the Cardinals' preparation this week.

"Just dealing with their size and staying aggressive and physical has really been our focus on defense the last couple of days," Carlson said. "We're going to match up the best we can with their bigs and keep our strongest kids in the game. The whole strategy is to deny good looks in the post and take away those entry passes."

In Olivia Travis, Nurjei Weems, Nora Francois and Mary Claire Francois, the Islanders boast four six-footers in the post that combine for 31.9 points per game.

"The strongest part of their team is they have three or four girls that can post up on offense and play really hard and physical," Carlson said.

It has been an up-and-down season for the Islanders, who took fifth place at state one year ago. After an 0-4 start that included two forfeited games due to playing ineligible players—who have since left the team—DeLaSalle rattled off 13 straight wins, including victories over state qualifiers Grand Rapids, Holy Angels and Hopkins.

The Islanders then dropped four out of six in the middle of February, but emerged with a dominant 70-30 win over Class AA QRF No. 1 Minnehaha Academy in the regular season finale.

Willmar may look to utilize its depth advantage over DeLaSalle, which only plays seven players, by matching the Islanders by extending the floor. Islanders point guard Ayanna Gardner creates problems for opponents with her speed, leading most opponents to let her walk the ball up court.

"We're going to push the tempo, try to speed them up and apply pressure," Carlson said. "Hopefully with our depth we can tire them out a little bit. They go seven deep but don't rotate their point guard out, so our guards can hopefully make her work."

As for dealing with the Islanders' tough full-court pressure, the Cardinals will look to build upon their past two games in section play against Becker and Zimmerman, two teams that apply the press.

"It's going to be big for us to not turn the ball over under the hoop," Carlson said. "We did a better job against Zimmerman, but (DeLaSalle's) size and their quick guards make it tough."