Lakeville North girls return to state basketball tourney

The big stage at Williams Arena might not fluster Lakeville North’s girls basketball team as the Panthers like to think they do some of their best work on the road.

For years, Lakeville North teams traveled to Rochester for section playoff games, often against Rochester teams. And the majority of the time the Panthers won. This year the road to state went through Rosemount, where North had to beat the No. 1-seeded Irish 53-44 on their home court in the Class 4A, Section 3 final March 4 to go to the state tournament for the ninth time since 2010.

“I think it almost helps when we’re away in big games,” senior guard Sarah Kuma said. “It gives us more of a reason to play with energy and come out strong.”

The Panthers (18-10) take their energy to the Class 4A state tournament Wednesday afternoon, where they play St. Michael-Albertville (19-8) at 4 p.m. The winner faces Farmington or Eden Prairie in the semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena.

Lakeville North was 4-6 on Jan. 1 but has won 11 of its last 13 games. The only losses in that stretch were to Farmington and Rosemount, the top two teams in the South Suburban Conference (North finished third in the league). In the playoffs, the Panthers defeated Hastings and Burnsville decisively at home before having to play at Rosemount in the final.

Lakeville North took a 17-3 lead at Rosemount, then pulled away with a 12-point run in the second half after the Irish (24-5) cut the deficit to one.

The fast start “was all created by our defense,” North coach Shelly Clemons said. “There was a huge emphasis on rebounding the ball. We’ve been outrebounded most of the season because we are smaller, but when we can rebound it opens things up for us to run, get easy baskets and not worry about being in a half-court offense.

“If we can get rebounds and run, that’s how we want to control the game.”

Clemons, who played on Lakeville High School state championship teams in 2002 and 2003, is taking the Panthers to the tourney for the sixth time in seven years as head coach. She said the framework for playoff success has been in place long before the current players joined the program.

“The girls believe in the traditions in our program,” Clemons said. “Four of the six coaches on my staff are former (Lakeville) players. All of these girls grew up watching Rachel Banham, Cassie Rochel, the championship era.

“At Lakeville North, the girls believe they can win. Especially when we’re playing teams that are ranked higher, we tell them, ‘We keep it close, we’re going to win the game.’ We know how to win. If the game is close we’re going to get the ball in our best player’s hands, and we’ll make good decisions and do what we need to do.”

Banham, who played on Lakeville North’s undefeated state championship team in 2009-10, starred at the University of Minnesota and was recently traded to the Minnesota Lynx, watched her alma mater win at Rosemount last week. That made an impression on the current North players

“I liked how with her busy schedule she took the time to come out and support her old high school,” junior guard Lizzie Berkvam said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

Senior guard Lauren Jensen, the second-leading scorer in school history, is averaging 24.4 points a game this season. Kuma is averaging 17.1. Both are headed for college basketball, Jensen at Iowa and Kuma at Concordia-St. Paul.

Jensen missed four games in January because of an injury. The Panthers went 3-1 in that stretch but more importantly, according to Soule, learned they could compete without their scoring leader if they had to.

“It was good on both ends,” Clemons said. “No. 1, Lauren needed the rest. For her to be out, as hard as it was for her to watch, it was good for her to see the confidence grow in her teammates and the success they were able to have. When she came back, she knew she could move the ball and get other people shots and they can hit them.

“The last game Lauren was out was a tough loss to Burnsville, so her teammates knew how much they needed her back. But it helped us get to a good place where everybody understands their role and what their job is.”

A telling point in the Section 3 championship game is Rosemount held Jensen to a season-low 12 points – and the Panthers still led the whole way. Kuma had a game-high 19 points and Berkvam scored 10.

The key thing for the Panthers, senior guard Morgan Robison said, is to not get flustered. “I think we just try to have a calm sense,” she said. “It takes leadership and experience to do that and we’ve played in those big games before.”

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