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Girls basketball: Cards ready for a rematch

Willmar's Hannah Johnson goes up for a floater during the Section 5AAA final in 2017. Curt Hogg / Tribune

The names on the jerseys will be the same, but the game within the game of Thursday's Section 5AAA girls basketball final between Willmar and Zimmerman will look different than last year's meeting between the teams.

The Cardinals (24-2) enter as the top seed in the section against the Thunder (19-9), who earned the third seed and defeated second-seeded Big Lake in overtime in the semifinals to create a rematch of last year's 62-51 win for Willmar.

It's a role reversal from that 2017 game in which Zimmerman entered at 24-3, with Willmar now ranked as the No. 6 team in Class AAA.

Aside from the teams' records, the most obvious difference for fans to see when the game tips off at 7 p.m. in Buffalo will be the look of the Thunder's defense.

"They were probably the toughest team we faced defensively last year," Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson said. "And that's largely because of one girl."

That girl was Danielle Williams, a crafty and highly athletic guard who led the state in steals, who graduated following last season.

Without her to anchor the defense, Zimmerman hasn't been able to apply the same full-court, trapping pressure as it did. That may be a welcome thing for the Cardinals, who turned the ball over 27 times against Becker in their semifinal win on Saturday.

"I think personnel-wise, Zimmerman's a little different than Becker," Carlson said. "So seeing full-court man-to-man isn't as much of a strong suit for them as it was Becker. They'll go into a couple zone full-court traps, but mostly a lot of 2-2-1 soft zone into that 2-3 zone that they like playing in."

The other big change from the matchup one season ago is the return of Thunder forward Naomi Hagstrom, who tore her ACL before the section tournament and has come back averaging 13 points per game in her senior season.

"I could tell in that section semifinal for them, in that second half down the stretch she wasn't going to let it go away and she was going to make a difference," Carlson said. "She hit some big shots for them down the stretch."

Hagstrom and junior guard Alyssa Daugherty carry the bulk of the offensive load for the Thunder. Daugherty averages over 21 points per game and is the school's all-time girls leading scorer.

"She's the real deal," Carlson said. "She gets to the basket, creates her own shot and she's a phenomenal foul shooter."

Willmar rarely strays from its help defense principles, but perhaps Thursday night could present a new look.

"Our girls are used to have that helper next to them at all times, so taking that away could make things awkward for them," Carlson said. "It's a situation we might have to try, though. We're willing to take some of those chances and make it tough for them by having someone else beat us."