MINNEAPOLIS — The New London-Spicer girls basketball team nearly stole a game it trailed most of the way.

The Wildcats were down 53-44 in a Class AA state semifinal against Providence Academy with 3 minutes, 29 seconds remaining. They cut the deficit to 56-54 with 13.5 ticks left.

After calling its final timeout, NLS went for the win, but a terrific defensive play propelled the Lions to the state championship game with a 58-54 victory on Tuesday from the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Providence Academy is the second seed in the North bracket while the top-ranked Wildcats were the top seed in the South. Their season comes to an end with a 22-1 record.

“I really respected and admired the way they clawed and did everything they could to get back into the game,” NLS head coach Mike Dreier said. “Unfortunately, we fell a little bit short. It’s a tough way to end a career for a group of kids that deserved better.”

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New London-Spicer senior forward Ava Kraemer takes a jump shot during the Class AA state semifinal game against Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
New London-Spicer senior forward Ava Kraemer takes a jump shot during the Class AA state semifinal game against Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

In the game’s deciding play, Wildcats senior guard Mackenzie Rich picked up her dribble after coming off a curl screen on the left wing. Rich lifted her defender with a pump fake and appeared to have a clear look, but her three-point attempt was blocked by Grace Counts.

The 6-foot sophomore forward dove on the ground for the loose ball and sealed the game with a pair of free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining.

She finished with a game-high five blocks, but none were bigger than her late swat.

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“It was a big play,” Providence Academy head coach Conner Goetz said. “We talked in the huddle about how we’d have to switch everything. Only being up two, we felt that New London was probably going to go for the three. I told my bigs to be ready to move their feet and stay with the guards. She did such a good job of staying in front (of Rich). And when the shot went up, she got all ball and contested as best she could.”

In her final career game, Rich had a game-high 18 points on 6 of 15 shooting. She gave NLS a 31-29 advantage after a three-point play 2:14 into the second half. After the Lions went back ahead, the senior guard hit a 3-pointer to make 34-33. That was the last lead the Wildcats would enjoy as seventh-grade guard Maddyn Greenway took over.

Providence Academy guard Maddyn Greenway takes a floater during the  Class AA state semifinal game against New London-Spicer on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
Providence Academy guard Maddyn Greenway takes a floater during the Class AA state semifinal game against New London-Spicer on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Greenway, the daughter of former Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Greenway, scored the next eight points. She capped her scorching stretch with a floater in the lane to put Providence Academy up 41-34.

Although she was 7-for-22 from the field, she finished with 16 points, 10 in the second half.

“She’s a good shooter, a real good driver and a heck of a player, too,” Dreier said of Greenway.

NLS’ rally started on the first points of the game for Emma Hanson. After pouring in a game-high 26 points in the team’s quarterfinal win over Lake City, the senior forward was held to five points on 2 of 9 shooting. However, her next basket — a straight-on 3-pointer — close the deficit to 56-52 with 1:17 left.

Following a turnover, Rich cut it to 56-54 with two free throws. The Wildcats collected another takeaway with its pressure, leading to the game’s final sequence.

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“The first look was to shoot it if its open, but if it isn’t open, try to take it to the basket,” Dreier said. “We tried it, but it didn’t work.”

The Lions enjoyed a 27-13 cushion in the first half thanks to the shooting of Brooke Hohenecker. NLS kept losing Hohenecker in its 2-3 zone and the ninth-grade guard made them pay. She drained four 3-pointers and had 14 of her 16 points in the first half.

The Wildcats entered halftime only down 27-24 after closing the half on an 11-0 run. Senior center Erin Knisley started the surge with a putback and a bucket inside. Senior forward Ava Kraemer capped the push with a field goal and two free throws.

New London-Spicer senior center Erin Knisley collects a block during in the Class AA state semifinal game against Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
New London-Spicer senior center Erin Knisley collects a block during in the Class AA state semifinal game against Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

NLS' most effective offense emerged in the interior with Kraemer and Knisley. Otherwise, it was a struggle for the Section 3AA champs to put up points. Missing 16 of their first 21 field-goal attempts, the Wildcats 31.3% from the floor. One week after knocking down 15-for-27 shots from distance, the team went 5-for-14 from three-point territory.

Knisley had the game’s best performance with 15 points, 17 rebounds (11 offensive) and a pair of blocks. Kraemer added nine points and nine rebounds.

That duo is part of a senior class that ends its time with the program with consecutive trips to the state tournament.

“I can’t tell you how much I respect what they’ve done,” Dreier said. “They not only performed at a high level, but they came to play every single day and set an example for everybody else in the program. They worked their tails off. How do you not respect that? I really do. I wish they could’ve had a little different ending, but that’s the way it works sometimes.”

New London-Spicer senior guard Mackenzie Rich drives into the lane during a the Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
New London-Spicer senior guard Mackenzie Rich drives into the lane during a the Providence Academy on Tuesday, April. 6, 2021 from the Target Center in Minneapolis. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Providence 58,

NLS 54

New London-Spicer (22-1) 24 30 — 54
Providence Academy (22-1) 27 31 — 58
NEW LONDON-SPICER - Scoring: Emma Hanson 5, Ava Kraemer 9, Erin Knisley 15, Jaden Coahran 7, Mackenzie Rich 18 … 3-point shots: Hanson 1, Coahran 1, M. Rich 3 … Rebound leader: Knisley 17, Kraemer 9 … Assist leader: M. Rich 5 … Steal leader: Avery Rich 5 ... Block leader: Knisley 2
PROVIDENCE - Scoring: Grace Counts 10, Maria Counts 15, Brooke Hohenecker 16, Maddyn Greenway 16, Carissa Miller 1 … 3-point shots: Hohenecker 4, Greenway 1 … Rebound leader: G. Counts 10, M. Counts 8 … Assist leader: G. Counts 6, M. Counts 5 … Steal leader: M. Counts 5 ... Block leader: G. Counts 5

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State tournament pairings

(at Target Center, Minneapolis)

Class A

Semifinals Tuesday

Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 51, Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s 50

Minneota 54, Mountain Iron-Buhl 53

Final Friday

Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (23-1) vs. Minneota (24-0), 1 p.m.

Class AA

Semifinals Tuesday

Albany 72, Glencoe-Silver Lake 49

Providence Academy 58, New London-Spicer 54

Final Friday

Albany (23-1) vs. Providence Academy (22-1), 3 p.m.

Class AAA

Semifinals Tuesday

Marshall 75, Holy Angels 58

Becker 84, Hill-Murray 51

Final Friday

Marshall (22-0) vs. Becker (18-3), 6 p.m.

Class AAAA

Semifinals Wednesday

Hopkins (16-0) vs. Chaska (16-0), 7 p.m.

Rosemount (19-3) vs. Centennial (21-1), 9 p.m.

Final Friday

Semifinal winners, 9 p.m.