In a small scale manner, Monticello surely would have liked a different ending to their season, for everyone wants to go out with a win. And with consecutive losses to DeLaSalle and Richfield to end the season, Monticello was not able to become one of the eight teams in the state to accomplish that. But big picture? With 25 wins, a section championship and a fourth place finish at state, the 2012-13 season truly couldn’t have ended much better for Monticello.
“Finishing fourth in state, and being able to play till the last day you can,” said Senior Kallie Gau, “can you ask for anything else?”
In this situation it seems the answer is no.
Monticello walked away from its second straight state tournament appearance with a laundry list of accomplishments, including, but not limited to: participation in one of the week’s most entertaining games, a chance to play the three highest ranked teams in the tournament, the highest finish in program history, the biggest comeback of the season, two girls named to the All-Tournament Team, and a state tournament record.
It was a roller coaster of highs and lows. A story of big leads and big deficits, of steals and turnovers, of late game shots and early game runs.
And that’s just the opening game.
Monticello 79, Fergus Falls 78 2OT
With 12 minutes remaining in the Magic’s tournament opener, it appeared the same amount of time was left in Monticello’s season.
The girls trailed undefeated Fergus Falls by 15 points, and dreams of a state tournament win were slipping away. But just as quickly as things had fallen apart for Monticello, they came back together. And over an incredible next 20 minutes of basketball, the Lady Magic grabbed the game back, and realized their dreams.
But the end would have never been possible without the beginning. Facing a team that hadn’t lost since the previous year’s state tournament, Monticello knew starting fast was essential. So they did just that.
With Grace Sawatzke orchestrating the offense, Monticello looked as sharp as they have all season in the opening minutes. The Magic got stops on defense and got out in transition on offense with Sawatzke either finding the hoop for a layin, or a teammate for an open shot. When Sawatzke found Gabby Laimer for a layup with 11:28 left on the first half clock, Monticello led 16-6. Sawatzke already had nine, and she had assists on the other three Magic hoops, including a game-opening three from Laimer.
The Magic were rolling.
But then, trouble. Sawatzke picked up her second foul on a charging violation. With ten minutes still remaining in the half, Sawatzke was relegated to the bench. The Otters wasted no time grabbing the momentum. The junior guard checked back in less than two minutes later, with the lead down to five. With Sawatzke’s foul trouble limiting her aggression, the Otters continued to control play after Monticello’s opening run. Fergus Falls’ response eventually added up to a 15-0 run, at which point Monticello was finally able to stem the momentum. But damage had been done, the higher seed had turned a ten-point deficit into a five-point advantage, and the Magic appeared to be reeling.
Yet, when the Magic entered the half a few minutes later, trailing 32-25, that was not the message.
“When we got down during the game, we could reflect back on that [early run] and say ‘hey we can do this’,” said senior Bailey Bechtold.
As the second half got underway, it appeared that the intermission had done nothing to stem the Otter’s momentum. They continued to get looks on the inside, while their guards, specifically Bailey Strand, continued to knock down big threes.
They continued to stretch the lead until finally, with 12 minutes remaining, they’d pushed it all the way to that 15- point mark.
The Magic were down, and they were down big. But somehow, someway, they weren’t out.
The Magic showed signs of life shortly after falling down by 15, but with less than six minutes remaining the Magic found themselves still down 12. Then, drama.
A three-pointer from Grace Sawatzke, and a basket and a free throw for Lentner brought the Magic to within six. A free throw from Kallie Gau dropped in. When Bechtold added two more free throws, it was suddenly a 56-53 game with over four minutes to go.
For the next two minutes, the teams traded baskets and free throws. The Magic could never quite pull even, but Fergus could never quite put the underdog away. When Lentner buried a triple from the top of the key, it was 62-60 Fergus Falls, with two minutes left. With less than a minute left, the Magic rebounded a Fergus miss and Sawatzke came down the court intent on getting to the rim. She was fouled on her way.
The junior made her first free throw but missed the second, forcing the Magic to foul with 20 seconds remaining. Fergus Falls returned the favor, hitting one out of two and setting Monticello up with a chance to tie.
When Sawatzke got the ball, there was just one thing on her mind.
“Get to the rim,” she said later.
She did just that, taking the outlet pass and going coast to coast, finishing at the rim with just 15 seconds left. When Fergus missed a contested jump shot, the Magic had secured more basketball.
In the first overtime the teams traded two-point leads before eventually settling into a tie that would force a second extra session.
The Otters grabbed the lead first in that overtime, but with less than two minutes left, Alyssa Lentner grabbed it back. She came out of nowhere on the defensive end to poke the ball loose into the backcourt. She hustled to the ball, arriving there first, and then to the rim, where her layup gave Monticello a one-point lead. A lead, thanks to good free throw shooting, that they wouldn’t relinquish. After Bechtold knocked down monster free throws to eventually push the lead to four points, a late three from Strand was too little too late.
The Magic were moving on.
The Magic knew the recipe it would take to beat the Otters, a team who finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the state pool. It would take star play from their biggest star, and it would take contributions from everyone. Somehow, they got just that. Sawatzke finished with a team-high 23 points to go with 8 assists despite battling foul trouble.
“I told her [before the game] ‘you’re the best player on the court, go out there and show it,’” said Coach Craig Geyen. “And she did.”
But as the game went on, Sawatzke found immense amounts of help. After a quiet first half, Lentner finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds while playing with an aggressiveness that helped set the tone for the Magic. Bechtold and Gabby Laimer each added 16 points with Laimer playing with her typical fearlesness and Bechtold showing a level of cool clutchness down the stretch that is rare at the high school level. Gau, the other Magic senior, also contributed in a big way, playing a heavy load of minutes in the second half as she helped turn up the defensive pressure on the Otters.
“The seniors played amazing,” raved Sawatzke after the game.
Long after the game was over, the shock of Monticello’s biggest comeback of the season, as well as a win in the highest scoring game in state tournament history, still hadn’t worn off.
“Disbelief,” said Bechtold, in the hallways of historic Williams Arena, an arena that now contains just a bit of Magic lore.
“Unbelievable,” added Geyen.
“We’re all pretty shocked,” summed up Sawatzke. “The first state tournament win in program history … that’s why we came here.”
DeLaSalle 67, Monti 42
Monticello may have accomplished their biggest goal, but they quickly set new ones, including a better showing in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal game against DeLaSalle, the two-time defending state champions.
Bechtold got the Magic off to a good start, hitting two free throws to open the scoring. But from there, it was all Islanders. The second seed in the tournament led 34-21 at the half and then used a 19-3 run early in the second half to really break things open.
“They’re good,” said Geyen after the game. “They’re very physical, they’re strong, they’re just another caliber.”
They used that strength to keep Monticello’s offense off balance for much of the night. The Magic struggled against their full court pressure, turning it over a postseason high 27 times during the game.
There were a few bright spots during the game for the Magic. Playing against a Division I guard in Allina Starr (Auburn) and a Division I post in Tyseanna Johnson (Iowa State), they forced DeLaSalle into 16 turnovers. They also managed to grab 40 rebounds to the Islanders’ 35, including matching DeLaSalle with 17 offensive rebounds a piece.
“Our attitude and effort were great all game, we kept working hard,” said Geyen. “We just kept fighting.”
Sawatzke led the Magic with 13 points, while Bechtold was effective inside for the second game in a row, finishing with ten points. Patiance Griffin led DeLaSalle, hitting six three pointers to score 18 points off the bench for the Islanders. Starr scored 17 and Johnson added 15 points.
Richfield 64, Monti 39
The semifinal loss sent Monticello to the third place game, where things wouldn’t get any easier. Monticello drew Richfield, the No. 1 seed in the tournament, who suffered a semifinal upset at the hands of Red Wing.
Early in the game, Monticello didn’t look like they had taken too many immediate lessons from the game against the Islanders. Facing a similar style of pressure and aggressiveness, Monticello fell behind 13-1 as they looked to avoid their first two-game losing skid of the year.
Then, a spark.
After a timeout, Kallie Gau came out of the huddle intent on getting the Magic in the game.
“Coach [Jocelyn Hoselton] said ‘this is your last game, go out with a bang’,” said Gau. “So I did.”
The senior went to the rim and was fouled. She hit one free throw. After helping the Magic get a stop, she pulled down an offensive rebound on the other end. She went back up and put it in. It was still only 13-4, but suddenly the Magic had life.
Monticello pulled to within 17-12, then Gau continued the run she had jump-started. Her jumpshot brought Monticello within three, the closest they had been since the opening minute. On the next posession, her layup made it a one-point game.
The contributions for the Magic continued to roll in from everywhere. Melissa Schmitt, another spark plug that fearlessly went toe-to-toe with First Team All-Metro player Jessica
January, hit a jump shot to give Monticello its first lead. After Richfield took a one-point lead back, Amanda Howe answered with a big bucket. When Laimer and Howe each added a free throw, Monticello had extended its lead over the No. 1 seed to 22-19.
But just as the Magic had reached full speed, it lost its ignition. With a couple of minutes remaining in the first half, Gau suffered an ankle sprain that would remove her from the game. Quickly, Monticello’s lead went with it.
“That was a big turning point,” said Geyen. “She was unbelievable. If she stays healthy we probably win that game, or close to it.”
The Spartans ended the half on a 6-0 run, leading 25-22 at the break.
In the second half, they would continue to wear the Magic down. With 12:30 left in the half, Monticello was still within five. But back-to-back threes for the Spartans pushed the lead to 11, and they wouldn’t look back.
The Magic were able to stay within striking distance for much of the remainder of the game, but they were never able to effectively strike. In the final few minutes Richfield pulled away from the Magic, souring the final moments of the state tournament run.
But the final memory certainly wouldn’t be the lasting one in a tournament, and a season, that was full of highlights.
“What a great run,” said Geyen. “Our kids never gave up, they just kept working and battling. We got our money’s worth.”