Last year, Monticello girls basketball took a step previously unmade by the program. They won their first section title and earned their first state berth.
This year, they’ll look to take another new step, one that was previously unavailable to them. Defend a section championship.
Tuesday, at their home opener, they certainly looked ready to defend – the basket, at least.
The Magic allowed the visitors just 19 first half points, and even less in the second half, on their way to a 56-34 victory, Monticello’s second of the young season.
The defense set the tone early in the game, as the Magic used full court pressure to create turnovers and easy baskets on their way to a 12-2 lead.
Last year, Monticello relied largely on a half court defense. This year, that won’t be the case.
“We feel like we got a team where we can get up and down a little bit,” said Coach Craig Geyen.
Tuesday night, Monticello needed that up-and-down pace. In the half court set the offense struggled to take care of the ball and get good looks. When they did get good looks, they rarely fell in.
When the turnovers stopped coming to the Magic in the first half, so did points. After scoring 12 points in the opening six minutes (four each for Bailey Bechtold, Gabby Laimer and Alyssa Lentner), Monticello picked up just two more over the next six minutes, allowing the visitors to cut the lead to 14-10.
As the half wound down, Monticello found the basket a few more times. But instead of finding steals, the defense found fouls. Sauk Rapids got into the bonus, and earned numerous trips to the free throw line, scoring 10 of their first half points at the stripe. Those easy points allowed the Storm to pull all the way within 20-19, before two free throws from freshman Melissa Schmitt right before the half extended Monticello’s lead to 22-19.
The second half started as more of the same. Magic turnovers led to easy points for Sauk Rapids, and eventually the visitors had taken a lead, 28-27.
“We stress, stress, stress take care of the ball,” said Geyen. “And we just didn’t do it tonight.”
But, right as it was beginning to seem clear that Sauk Rapids was going to hang around till the final horn, Monticello resumed its defense.
The Magic again started forcing turnovers, rather than making them.
They finished fast breaks. When they didn’t finish, they earned second and third opportunities – finishing the game with 17 offensive rebounds.
While it had taken a whole half for their initial lead to evaporate, it took just seconds to get it back. An 8-0 spurt put Monticello back up by seven points. An ensuing 13-1 run put the Magic out of reach, giving the home team a 48-29 lead with just a few minutes left to play.
“We started playing defense again,” said Geyen. “And our defense created our offense.”
That offense was created largely for and by Laimer and Lentner who led the Magic with 12 points apiece. Ten players scored in the game for the Magic, helping them to a comfortable victory despite getting just five points on a tough shooting night from standout junior Grace Sawatzke.
“We need other kids [to step up],” said Geyen, who was pleased with the balance scoring. “Any level you go to, you need [at least] three kids who can score.”
The Magic will score points this year. Between Laimer and Lentner, Sawatzke and Bechtold, they have girls who have already proven capable. But, for Monticello this year will largely be about defense. Both on a nightly and season-long basis.
“We’re getting better,” said Geyen. “But we still got a long ways to go.”
Monticello opened their season with a 59-42 win over St. Anthony last Friday, before falling 58-33 to New Prague Saturday. Sawatzke led the Magic with 19 points in the victory, while Laimer led the Magic with 16 points against New Prague.