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Willmar's state bid falls short

Wilmar's Jena Thompson, left, battles for possession with Worthington's Kaitlin Gerber in the first half Thursday in Mankato. Looking on is Willmar's Kelsey Evans. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton1 / 2
Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Lesley Christianson, left, and Mariel Aamot of Willmar battle for a loose ball with Worthington's Holli Aggen, center, during the second half Thursday.2 / 2

MANKATO -- It turns out that Worthington can also play defense.

The high-scoring Trojans eased by Willmar 54-31 Thursday to return to the Class AAA state tournament for the second time in three years.

The game was a rematch of last year's semifinal at Bresnan Arena at the Taylor Center on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato. That game was an 18-point win for the Trojans, 77-53.

Willmar played solid defensively. It was 19-10 at halftime, but the Cardinals just couldn't get into gear when they had the ball.

"They're a lot faster than any team we've played," said Willmar senior guard Hannah Murphy. "And each one handles the ball so well. Defensively we played well, but offensively nothing happened. We had so many stupid turnovers. We just didn't play our game."

The loss ends a string of 13 straight wins and left the Central Lakes Conference champions with a final record of 22-4.

The Trojans (24-2), a top-ranked team all year whose only losses are to Faribault and Minneapolis North, lost by double digits to Marshall in last year's section final.

"We've waited a long time for this," said Worthington senior Holli Aggen, who scored 11 points. "It was very hard losing in a blowout last year when we were expected to win. But this feels great."

Worthington cranked up their offense in the second half to score 35 points.

"Coach (Eric) Lindner told us to start shooting outside because we can shoot from out there," said Aggen. "When they came out to guard us, we just stepped around them."

The Trojans' style was to drive for the iron with the slightest daylight. They weren't too successful against Willmar's tenacious man-to-man defense the first half, but their aggressiveness eventually just wore Willmar down.

It didn't help that Willmar's top ballhandler and shooter, Kelsey Evans, was in foul trouble from the opening minutes and eventually fouled out with nearly nine minutes left in the game.

There wasn't much scoring to speak of but Mariel Aamot and Hannah Smith each got seven points, Alex Lippert six and Evans five. Lippert also had 10 rebounds and four blocks and Jena Thompson had six rebounds and three assists.

Willmar fell behind 7-0 on a Gabby Boever three-pointer before Evans wove her way through the entire defense for a layup. Lippert scored underneath and Smith swished a baseline 14-footer. Lippert and Smith scored again and it was just 12-10 Worthington with 5:50 to play.

That's as close as it would get. With Evans on the bench, the favorites went on a 7-0 run to end the half.

Willmar coach Brad Atchison was trying to get his Cardinals back to state for the first time since 2006. He knew the Trojans would be a handful but felt his team came out tentative before loosening up in the second half.

"Defensively, we accomplished what we wanted to and stopped their fast break, but there just wasn't enough offense," he said. "But you know, it's tough to look good against a team with a great bunch of athletes like that."

Willmar had the rebound edge 31-19. At the free-throw line Willmar was 1-for-2 and Worthington 15-of-28.

Worthington 54, Willmar 31

Willmar (22-4) 10 21 -- 31

Worthington (24-2) 19 35 -- 54

WILLMAR - 14-40 FG (2-9 3-pt); 1-2 FT; 31 rebounds; 21 fouls ... Scoring: Kelsey Evans 5, Mariel Aamot 7, Hannah Smith 7, Jennifer Knake 2, Alex Lippert 6, Jena Thompson 4 ... 3-point shots: Aamot 1, Smith 1 ... Rebound leaders: Lippert 10, Thompson 6, Smith 6 ... Assist leaders: Thompson 3 ... Steal leaders: Smith 3, Hannah Murphy 3 ... Blocks: Lippert 4

WORTHINGTON - 18-56 FG (3-9 3-pt); 15-28 FT; 19 rebounds; 9 fouls ... Scoring: Holli Aggen 11, Gabby Boever 9, Kaitlin Gerber 16, Rachel Malmgren 2, Martha Alwal 5, Kayla VanderVeen 4, Kayla Schroeder 1, Kristen Andersen 5, Mackenzie Gerber ... 3-point shots: Boever 1, Gerber 1, VanderVeen 1 ... Rebound leaders: Alwal 9 ... Assist leaders: Boever 3 ... Steal leaders: Gerber 5, Aagen 4, Boever 3