Monticello’s senior-laden team entered Friday night’s section final with the experience of two section championships under their belts. But they also entered it with the pressure that comes from defending those section championships. Adding to that extra meaning was the pressure and expectations that come with senior year.
“There was a lot of expectation [this year],” said senior captain Grace Sawatzke.
She added: “We didn’t try to put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but it was there, we could all feel it.”
Yet as the biggest game of the year winded down, the pressure from those expectations seemed to melt away. And the Magic seniors did exactly what was expected of them and they took what they deserved, rallying for a 68-64 win over Orono and a third straight state tournament berth.
“This one meant the most,” said Sawatzke, who scored a team-high 20 points, putting her over the 2,000 point mark for her career. “It was our year.”
It didn’t come easy for the Magic, who trailed for much of the game and needed big efforts from each of their four big scorers to pull out the victory.
The game went back and forth for the opening few minutes. Orono stretched the lead to 13-8 before the Magic answered with a 7-0 run. The Spartans came back with another spurt, taking a 22-15 lead and appearing to be on the verge of opening up an even bigger lead when Gabby Laimer knocked down a big three-pointer, keeping the Magic within striking distance.
However, the Magic soon suffered through another scoring drought as Orono expanded its lead all the way to 10 points, 32-22, late in the first half. But in the final minutes of the half, Monticello found a spark. A basket and free throw from Emily Gruber, followed by a transition triple and coast-to-coast layup for Sawatzke at the horn brought Monticello back to within 34-30 at the intermission, and sparked a Monticello dominated crowd.
“It helps us so much,” said Lentner, referring to having the crowd involved. “It gives us confidence.”
Lentner got the crowd even more riled up to start the second half when she canned a three-pointer from the top of the key, her second of the game, to bring Monticello within a point. But the young Spartans weren’t phased. They used yet another run to stretch the lead back out to 45-37.
The Spartans would keep Monticello at a distance for a few more minutes, grabbing their biggest second half lead with 13 minutes left, at 50-41.
But the Magic weren’t going to stay down for good.
“We’ve been down before,” said Coach Craig Geyen. “Our girls know, stay the course and good things will happen.”
Led by Emily Gruber, the one Magic contributor who had never played in a section final, Monticello came roaring back.
On the offensive end, Gruber scored 13 points over the next seven minutes. On the defensive end, she recorded block shots on several big possessions. On each end, she played a huge role in bringing Monticello back to even and eventually putting them in front 60-56 with six minutes to go.
Gruber was aided by the fact that she and her teammates got Orono’s starting center in early foul trouble, forcing her to play limited minutes.
“Without a shot blocker, it’s easier to get buckets,” said Gruber.
Sawatzke acknowledged that the Magic didn’t get Gruber enough chances early when Orono’s center was out, but they made up for it in the second half.
“She was great,” said Sawatzke. “She delivered when we needed her the most.”
The game would go back and forth for the next few minutes, as the Magic were unable to put the Spartans away. Trailing by three, with less than two minutes left, Kiera Nelson, who scored a game high 21 points, drilled a step back three pointer, knotting the game up.
It was Orono’s eighth three of the game, on just 20 attempts.
“We knew they could shoot,” said Lentner. “But, they really hit a lot of shots.”
But the Magic, and specifically Lentner, who appeared fully recovered from her bout with mononucleosis earlier this season, had an answer.
The senior, who matched Gruber’s 18 points, kissed a pretty pull-up jumper off the glass for the go-ahead bucket with just over a minute left. The Magic wouldn’t trail again. Two clutch free throws from Sawatzke and one from Lentner sandwiched the biggest defensive stop of the year, as Monticello, and its seniors, sealed their third straight state berth.
“They’re unbelievable,” said Geyen, of his players, who have now won nine straight section games and 11 of the last 12. “They just know what’s expected and they come out and get the job done.”
As it always does this time of year, it took everyone to get the job done. Monticello got great defense off the bench from Christine Lui, and they got big offensive efforts from each of their four players, as Laimer tallied 10 points, including two monster threes, to join the other three in double figures.
“It was a total team effort,” said Geyen. “We just keep coming at you.”
And they just keep going to the state tournament. This trip marks the third straight for the Magic, after not going at all until the 2011-12 season. It also marks the third in three years for Geyen, who was named the Section 5AAA Coach of the Year for the second straight year.
“This feels phenomenal,” said Geyen, of the section championship. “These girls worked their butts off.”
“I’m so proud of this senior class,” he added. “These kids show up, they work hard every day, and they want to be here.”
Here, meaning in the gym, any gym. But Geyen could have easily been referencing Monticello’s upcoming appearance at state., where this year’s Magic seniors will finish their season and careers.
Gruber, making her first trip to the state tournament, put it succinctly.
“This is what we worked for,” she said.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com