BUFFALO - From the first game of the season on Nov. 27 to the Section 5AAA championship Thursday, Willmar got to see Becker's transformation first-hand.
In the opening game of the 2018-19 season, the Cardinals left Becker with a 69-63 victory. Twenty-seven games later, Becker turned into a section champion-caliber squad.
"With such young kids, being sophomores, freshman and eighth-graders, a whole year of experience was huge for them," said Willmar head girls basketball coach Dusty Carlson. "They had so much more confidence as a group. They have great skill and they know that, and they have depth. The first time around, they played six, maybe seven kids, and tonight they had eight, maybe nine kids."
With a state berth on the line, the Bulldogs held the Cardinals scoreless for an eight-minute span, helping to cement a 56-36 victory at Buffalo High School.
Becker and Willmar battled back and forth through the first seven minutes as the game was tied 12-all after a layup by Carly Wedel with 11:18 left in the first half.
The clock read 3:13 the next time the Cardinals got a basket on an Abby Berskow layup. Between those buckets, the Bulldogs went on an 18-0 run. Adeline Kent had eight of her 19 points in that span as Becker had a 30-12 lead.
"They ball pressure so well and they deny the passes on the wing," Carlson said about Becker's defense in that stretch. "We only had four 3-point attempts in the first half. That's unlike us. We just didn't have any looks. We weren't finishing and they were making shots; you have to give them a lot of credit."
Along with Kent's big night, Julia Bengtson hit four 3-pointers as part of a game-high 20 points.
"We were taking on a lot of dribble drives and they just kept working it and working it," Carlson said. "They would find someone falling asleep just a little bit and they'd finish."
Trailing 35-17 at halftime, Willmar showed some life with a half-court trap that gave Becker some fits as the Cardinals made it a 44-34 game with 7:26 to play.
"The girls picked up the aggression on defense and we looked to run a little bit," Carlson said. "We started a half-court trap and I think that took them by surprise. We got two or three steals right away, so that was huge for us."
Using her physicality to her advantage, Sadie Raitz was the best player on the floor for the Cardinals with 10 points on 4 of 8 shooting. She also had team highs in rebounds (nine) and steals (three).
"She was incredible tonight," Carlson said of Raitz. "She struggled offensively the last I-don't-know-how-many games and she found some confidence tonight and it was awesome to see her take it hard to the basket."
The 10-point deficit was as close as Willmar would get as Becker scored 12 of the final 14 points, securing its first state appearance in three years.
Willmar wraps up the 2018-19 season with a 21-5 record.
Becker (25-4) 35 21 - 56
Willmar (21-5) 17 19 - 36
BECKER - Scoring: Alayna Lindquist 2, Courtney Nuest 7, Julia Bengtson 21, Adeline Kent 21, Megan Gamble 4, Dani Nuest 3 ... 3-point shots: Bengtson 4, Nuest 1 ... Rebound leader: NA ... Assist leader: NA ... Steal leader: NA
WILLMAR - Scoring: Abby Berskow 7, Katelyn Murphy 3, Mackenzie Jones 2, Sadie Raitz 10, Madi Linbo 4, Carly Wedel 8, Ella Shinn 2 ... 3-point shots: Berskow 1 ... Rebound leader: Raitz 9, Jones 5 ... Assist leader: Jones 3 ... Steal leader: Raitz 3