For a fourth straight year, the Magic girls basketball team will play in the section final for a chance to go to the state tournament.
But earning that opportunity wasn’t easy for the two-time defending section champions, who were tested from start to finish in the section semifinal by a young and hungry Becker Bulldogs team. It wasn’t until Becker’s final shot, a two-point attempt, caromed off the rim, that the top-seeded Magic were able to walk calmly off the court, with a 54-51 victory.
“We did just enough to get out of there with a win,” said Coach Craig Geyen.
Despite beating Becker by 14 earlier this year, Monticello knew they could be in for a fight if Becker played its best.
“We went in knowing that this team is a good team,” said Geyen. “We thought they hadn’t peaked yet.”
With the stakes of the loser going home, and the added motivation of facing the top-seed and defending section champs, Becker came out in attack mode.
The Magic weren’t surprised.
“We knew they were going to come at us,” said Magic senior Grace Sawatzke.
And they did, early.
After a scoreless opening two and a half minutes, Becker outscored Monticello 13-9 during the ensuing four minutes.
Keeping Monticello in the game early was Gabby Laimer. The senior guard picked up an early steal and a layup, then added a three-pointer and another basket, giving her seven of Monticello’s first nine points.
Still, Becker kept coming at Monti, pushing the lead to 18-13 with just over eight minutes left in the first half.
Then, it was Monticello’s turn to make a run.
A layup from Sawatzke, followed a couple of possessions later by a three-pointer from Alyssa Lentner, who continues to get her legs back under her after missing a month with mononucleosis, tied the game at 18. When Gruber connected on a layup, Monticello was back in front.
The Bulldogs were able to tie the game at 22 all, but Monti finished the half with a spurt, as a basket and free throw from Gruber plus a Sawatzke layup on a nice assist from Melissa Schmitt put the Magic up 27-22 at the half.
The Magic started the second half with a renewed passion, scoring six straight points to extend the lead all the way to 11, the largest of the game. It felt like the Magic might impose their will, and pull away for another easy victory.
“When we made that run, I think we were feeling pretty confident,” said Sawatzke. “But they kept coming back.”
The Bulldogs scored eight quick points and cut the lead down to 35-30 before a three-pointer from Sawatzke pushed it back to eight.
Becker kept coming, scoring the next five points to pull within 38-35.
The young Bulldogs team didn’t get rattled, but neither did the veteran team. The Magic, featuring three starters who have played in four section semifinals, stayed poised as the lead shrunk and then hovered around a single possession.
“Their shooting was on,” said Sawatzke. “But we just kept playing. We’ve been [in this spot] before.”
While Becker wouldn’t let Monticello pull away, the Magic wouldn’t let Becker pull even. Gruber picked up another basket and the free throw to keep the lead at four. Then it was three offensive rebounds on a possession capped by a Sawatzke layup to maintain the lead.
Three more points from Sawatzke and yet another converted and-one for Gruber pushed the lead all the way to eight with under two minutes left and it seemed like Monticello could finally breathe easy.
But over their next four possessions, Becker would hit three threes, cutting the lead all the way down to 52-51 with just seven seconds remaining.
The ensuing inbounds pass found sophomore Melissa Schmitt, the least experienced guard on the floor for the Magic. Schmitt, who started seeing significant minutes at the end of last season, was already two for four in the final minute of the game, but would need to go two for two to help the Magic feel confident here.
The sophomore got just that. Schmitt calmly and confidently buried both free throws, extending Monticello’s lead to 54-51.
“They were huge [free throws],” said Sawatzke. “We needed those.”
The Bulldogs had one last chance, but after nearly losing the basketball, they stepped inside the three point line before attempting their final shot. The two-pointer bounced harmlessly away, giving Monticello yet another section final berth.
“It’s huge for our kids, it’s huge for the whole program,” said Geyen. “It’s been a fun ride.”
The three seniors that have played in the last three section finals all played big roles in making the fourth happen. Laimer provided the early spark, Lentner was all over the court, finishing with a team-high 10 rebounds, and Sawatzke tied Gruber, who will be playing in her first section final, with a team-high 18 points.
That balance and depth continues to be key for the Magic.
“It’s been something that we’ve had all year,” said Geyen. “You never know who is going to be the player to carry us.”
The Magic would like to carry this season a little farther.
“They want to take another step,” said Geyen on Monday night, two days after the semifinal victory. “With the way they practiced today, and their demeanor, they’re on a mission.”
Magic take on Orono for state berth
To take that next step, they’ll have to go through the red-hot Orono Spartans. The Spartans, seeded second in the section, toppled Delano 83-66 on Saturday night for their 16th win in their last 17 games.
The two teams met early this season in Monticello, with the Magic beating Orono 51-43, just after Christmas.
Orono’s strength is guard play, but they have inside weapons as well.
“They’re a nice, balanced team,” said Geyen. “They’re quick, athletic and deep.”
The Spartans like to take advantage of that speed by getting out and running the floor, something they did with a lot of success against Delano, according to Geyen.
The Magic will look to slow Orono in transition, while doing the little things that it takes to win a big game against a good team.
“We’re just going to play Monticello Magic basketball,” said Geyen.
For the last two years, that’s been state tournament quality. Friday, the Magic will try to make it three years running.
The section final will be played Friday, at Buffalo High School. The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at firstname.lastname@example.org