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Girls basketball: Esko silences Wildcats in quarterfinals

New London-Spicer’s Taylor Thunstedt takes a shot as Esko’s Ashley Bergerson defends during the first half of their Minnesota Class AA state tournament quarterfinal game Wednesday at the Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. Esko won 39-35. Tribune photo by Tom Larson1 / 2
Tribune photo by Tom Larson The New London-Spicer Wildcats’ players hug after their loss to Esko in the Class AA state quarterfinals Wednesday. 2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS — If James Naismith had somehow envisioned the 3-point shot, he would have been fond of Esko’s peach basket style of basketball.

Playing deliberately, bordering on boringly, the Eskomos took the run and the gun out of New London-Spicer, winning their Class A Minnesota State Girls Basketball Tournament quarterfinals game 39-35 on Wednesday at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

With NLS hitting virtually nothing in the early going, the Eskomos built a huge first-half lead, and when the Wildcats caught up Esko worked its gameplan to perfection again late in the game.

With NLS leading 33-29 with about five minutes to play, Esko’s Ashley Bergerson and Erika Shady hit consecutive 3-pointers to put Esko up by two. With the Wildcats unable to convert enough last-ditch shots, Esko hit four foul shots in the final 1:12 to maintain control.

“Give them credit,” said NLS head coach Mike Dreier, “they’re very athletic kids but unfortunately it’s a team we need to play ahead against and we didn’t.”

The Wildcats, making their first state tournament trip since 2009, finished 24-6. Esko, who boys team won the Class AA boys title last week, is now 26-5 and advances to play 30-1 Kenyon-Wanamingo at 8 p.m. Friday at Williams Arena. New Richland-H-E-G, top-ranked and 29-0, plays Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (28-2) in Friday’s other Class AA semifinal.

The Wildcats entered the tournament with confidence, knowing that they had beaten two teams in the Class AA field. But they had much too much trouble getting untracked offensively. NLS shot 30 percent from the field in the first half and fell behind 16-4 before star guard Taylor Thunstedt began heating up.

Thunstedt scored 11 of the Wildcats’ 17 first-half points and she scored seven points in one two-minute stretch to help NLS take the four-point lead. But the offense never clicked like the one that averaged 70 points per game.

“We had so many opportunities early on and we didn’t cash in,” Dreier said. “It was tough to struggle back from that far down when you’re playing against a deliberate offense.”

Thunstedt finished her prep career with 24 points but hit just 9-of-28 shots, including 3-fo-14 from 3-point range. Fellow senior Olivia Setterberg scored 8 points and had 5 boards and junior Ashlyn Geister had 3 points and 8 rebounds. They were the only Wildcats to score.

Esko’s style wore on the Wildcats, physically and emotionally.

 “Nobody likes to play defense that long if you can help it,” Dreier said. “(The Eskomos) did hold the ball, and then they made shots after holding the ball. Give them all the credit for what they did.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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