There was never a dull moment when the Wildcats made their way to Perham for the Grand 8 Holiday Tournament, and their perseverance to just get to the arena paid off with a memorable win that had the ‘Cats celebrating a buzzer beater and their first win streak of the year.
“It was all crazy,” said coach Dusty Neibauer. “Getting there through icy roads, immense snowfall (they had approx. 24 inches in 2 days), having our bus break down on day two, introducing the team to Zorbaz, and debating the virtues of Cars 2 were all just precursors and window dressing to the crazy things seen on the court in this holiday tournament in the nicest gym in Minnesota (my opinion), the Hive, in Perham, MN.”
Not only was it interesting getting to the games, the play on the court featured an interesting matchup both on the floor and off.
“On the court, we knew that our game versus Perham would be crazy for many reasons - they are an incredible three-point shooting team, which has been what has killed us in all four losses so far this year, so we knew we’d have to try and run them off the line and get them to try and beat us in other ways, and they just about did,” said Neibauer. “But they know our team very well for a couple of reasons: TJ Super, their head coach, is my best friend; our dads played together in high school and two different colleges, and lead the amateur Mentor Marauders to glory back in the day; We played against each other in high school; we played together in college, were roommates, were co-coaches of traveling teams, and have been watching each others’ teams for the 16 years we’ve been coaching at the high school level; when we made our state run two years ago, coach Super was scouting teams for us, talking strategy, and after our first round win against Red Wing in the State Tournament, was on the phone and computer with myself, coaches Westphal and Damasin and Schmitt, writing the Becker scouting report until 1:30 in the morning.”
With a knowledge of what makes the Waconia offense work, the Yellowjackets packed the pint, brought double teams and gave the Wildcats open shots they aren’t used to.
“It sounds counterintuitive in a way, but the idea is it makes players take on more responsibility than they might normally be used to; Perham has pulled upsets on state championship-caliber teams with that type of defense, and I knew there might be a chance we’d see it, and we did,” said Neibauer. “We told our girls that they don’t have to take the first shot available, because they’d be able to shoot it with the space they had as much as they’d need to whenever they could, but if they were comfortable, they should shoot it like they mean it.”
Perham led by as much as 12 in the second half before Waconia made its run to get the game within striking distance. Down the stretch, the Wildcats hit enough shots cumulatively to put them in the position to win and close out the game multiple times, but a couple of factors bled into it; fouling/and-1’s down the stretch, a couple of timely turnovers/missed free throws, and the momentum Perham carried into the comeback.
“We had built a lead in the second half by getting seven straight stops (four of which involved Kenzie Amundson either blocking or stealing it on defense) in a row, but didn’t convert all the layups/fast break opportunities that we could, and those are the types that can come back to haunt you, if paired with a bucket on their end,” said Neibauer. “Also in the mix was an injury to our starting point guard, Morgan Meyer, so without her confidence and assuredness, that was another adjustment we had to make.”
Waconia slowly chipped away on the strength of two standout performances by Perhmam guard Greta Hillica and post Willow Thielen, and some of the fouls called on their finishes spooked the ‘Cats into playing less physically than they are used to.
“We are used to the AAAA teams pushing, shoving, riding you down the court and in the paint, and we didn’t adjust as much as we could’ve to a more tightly-called game in both games, and that allowed them to chip away, and make a three point shot in transition after a missed free throw late to tie the game in regulation,” said Neibauer. “Yet, we battled on.”
Overtime was a lead-changing affair, with both teams taking a 1 or 2 point lead multiple times. Coming up huge for Waconia was Kenzie Amundson, stepping up when the Wildcats needed buckets, scoring six points in OT alone with Perham doubling Stier and Swanson every time they touched the ball.
Perham converted a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left to take a 1 point lead, and Waconia used their last timeout to draw up a play to get Swanson in space, with Stier ready to cut from the backside or rebound a potential miss, and a shooter in the corner. Waconia got a shot off, but it missed, and the rebound went off of the ‘Cats with about 2.4 seconds left, but they didn’t give up.
“Credit to our developing mental toughness and experience - we know that every second and possession matters to this team, and we defended the first inbound attempt, tried to foul, but a phantom buzzer from the scoreboard made everyone stop and re-set, which turned out to be a gigantic event,” said Neibauer. “On the next inbound attempt, we denied and switched, and Seim switched onto a guard cutting to the sideline, got a hand on the ball, it deflected off of Perham’s player, and it was our ball on the side with .9 seconds left and no timeouts. The next 15 seconds will live in infamy.”
Seim was inbounding, because she can throw all sorts of crazy passes as a soccer player with vision and height and such things. Waconia tried to get Stier on the block and Amundson near her on the backside for a potential lob, and hoping to see if they’d double Stier or Swanson, who was near the top of the key.
“Swanny was casually lingering near the top of the key, knowing that she could V-cut and catch and shoot where she had to, since they weren’t doubling her and wouldn’t want to foul, since we were in the bonus and they were only up one, so she V-cut hard, caught it in Steph Curry range, and let it fly,” said Neibauer. “Coaches were leaning it in; players were on their feet, fingers were on temples (Sizzle), and no thoughts were present as the ball arced midair toward an already-ringing buzzer, and as the ball banked in, the celebration was on. It was crazy, and exhilarating, and what every kid dreams about. I said this before: I was overjoyed for our kids, they’ll remember it forever, as will I; yet, I was pained at seeing my friend and Perham’s players lose like that. But, that’s what’s great about High School sports - incredible performances, players stepping up, and 3 buzzer beaters - it was March Madness in December.
Swanson had 15 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Stier had 13 points, 14 boards, four assists, two blocks and a steal.
Amundson had 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks.
Lauwagie had 10 points, hitting two threes, grabbing two boards, with an assist and two steals.
Seim had four points, four boards, four assists and three steals.
Sazama had five points and a board.
Keaveney stepped up once Meyer got injured and hit six points, one of them a huge three in the second half, to go with two boards, four assists and zero turnovers.
Cravens had 3 points (another huge three down the stretch), three assists and two steals.
And Meyer had four points before she got injured, which is a huge blow to the Wildcats.
“Her confidence, communication, and steady hand will be missed immensely in the immediate future,” said Neibauer.