The defending Class A state champion Minneota Vikings are returning to the Big Dance for a fifth straight season after a 44-33 victory over Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in the Section 3A championship Friday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
Minneota (26-5) will open the tournament on Thursday taking on top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Mountain Iron-Buhl in the quarterfinals at 11 a.m. at the University of Minneota's Maturi Pavilion.
The Viking nipped Mt. Iron-Buhl 54-53 in last year's Class A semifinals and then went on to beat Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa for the championship. Teams are seeded 1-5 and the other three teams are random draws to see who their first-round opponent will be.
The other quarterfinals will feature No. 4 Cass Lake-Bena against No. 5 Hayfield at 1 p.m.; No. 2 Mayer Lutheran vs. United Christian Academy at 3 p.m.; and No. 3 Hancock vs. Nevis at 5 p.m.The semifinals are Friday at noon and 2 p.m. at Williams Arena, while consolation games are Friday at 10 a.m. and noon at Concordia University.
On Saturday, the consolation final is at 9 a.m. at Concordia University, with the third-place game to follow at 11 a.m. The championship is at noon at Williams Arena.
After a low-scoring first half that left Minneota and TMB in a 17-17 halftime deadlock, the Vikings seemingly pitched a tent and camped at the free-throw line in the second half.
The Vikings made only two field goals in the entire second half but cashed 23 of 30 free throws to upend the Panthers. Minneota was just 1 of 4 on free throws in the first half.
"I think we were a little timid in the first half because we were afraid to make a mistake," said senior guard McKenzie Tolk, who had another stellar defensive game while also contributing eight points. "We attacked the basket a lot better in the second half."
"McKenzie did a great job guarding (Jordan) Munson," said Minneota coach Chad Johnston, referring to TMB's top scorer who was held to only seven points.
Discounting two years they played in Class AA in 2016 and 2017, the Vikings (26-5) have now qualified for 10 straight Class A state tournaments, the last five and the previous before the two Class AA seasons.
This wasn't anything like the last time the two teams met when the Panthers built a 27-point lead in the first half and then withstood a furious comeback attempt by the Vikings and won 50-46 on Feb. 10 in Tracy.
Johnston was asked what he told the team at halftime after such a strong defensive, but poor offensive output by each team in the first half.
"Well, at least we weren't 21 points down in this one at halftime like we were the last game, so we got to start off even in the second this time," he said. "I told them to keep playing good defense and to value each possession and be more aggressive on offense. I think we turned down a lot of good shots in that first half."
The 17 points over the first 18 minutes was a season-low for each team, who each average over 60 points per game.
"We were a little tight in the first half," said senior post Jeren Rost, who had six points and six rebounds. "We got out of our offense, and we threw the ball away a lot. The game changed when we settled down in the second half and played our game."
Each team's top scorer, Jordyn Munson of TMB and Natalee Rolbiecki of Minneota, were held to just four points in the first half as they were the focus of each team's suffocating defense. Rolbiecki finished with a game-high 10 points, while Munson led TMB with seven points.
Munson sprained her ankle her ankle with 10 minutes left in the game and the Panthers trailing by seven points. She returned with four minutes remaining, although not at 100 percent and was unable to rally the Panthers.
"We just didn't play as good of defense in the second half as we did in the first half," Munson said. "We fouled way too much, and they kept making their free throws. We also couldn't make any shots tonight at all. But their defense had something to do with that, too."
The Vikings pressured the Panthers and limited their offensive strengths all night, denying them drives to the basket and pressuring them outside the arc.
"We calmed down in the second half and kept our composure," said junior forward Ireland Stassen, who had seven points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals for the Vikings. "We took good paths to the basket and drew fouls, which we weren't doing in the first half."
Stassen also had a strong defensive game, sacrificing her body to pounce on any loose balls within reach.
"That's the way she always plays," said Johnston. "She goes after everything she can get to."
McKenna Yost finished with seven points, five rebounds and three steals. Dakoda Hennen and Grace Hennen each knocked down a three-pointer off the bench.
Minneota started off the second half on a 9-0 run with Stassen hitting four free throws, McKenna Yost scoring on a drive to the basket, and Tolk also scoring off a drive and completing a three-point play after getting fouled. The baskets by Yost and Tolk were the only two the Vikings would make in the half, scoring only free throws over the final 15 minutes.
TMB was held to only five points over the first 12 minutes of the second half.
Trailing 35-26, Munson hit a three-pointer with 2:03 remaining to make it 35-29. That was as close as the Panthers would get as Minneota made seven of its final nine free throws.
TMB called a final timeout with 37 seconds left in the game. When the Viking players emerged from the timeout, the five players returning to the court all had wide smiles on their face.
"We knew it wasn't over yet, but we were pretty sure," laughed Rost.
(Minneota 44, Tracy-MB 33)
Tracy-Milroy-Balaton...................................17 16 - 33
Minneota......................................................17 27 - 44
Field goal shooting (good-attempts-pct.): Tracy-Milroy-Balaton 14-for-38, 36.8 percent. Minneota 9-for-33, 27.3 percent ... 3-point shooting (good-attempts-pct.): Tracy-Milroy-Balaton 2-for-16, 12.5 percent. Minneota 2-for-13, 15.4 percent ... Rebounds: Tracy-Milroy-Balaton 21, Minneota 26.
TMB Individual Statistics
Scoring (total points): Kiarra Danielson 1-4 0-0 2, Jaysa Davis 2-3 1-1 5, Camille Dolan 3-4 0-0 6, Margaret Dolan 2-4 0-0 4, Maddi Langerock 1-2 2-2 5, Sheridan Ludeman 0-3 0-0 0, Jordan Munson 3-9 0-0 7, Jasmine Timmerman 0-4 0-0 0, Madison Timmerman 0-1 0-0 0 ... 3-pointers: Munson 1, Langerock 1 ... Rebound leader: Munson 4, Davis 4 ... Assist leader: Langerock 2, Munson 2 ... Steal leader: Langerock 4.
Minneota Individual Statistics
Scoring (fgm-fga ftm-fta points): Natalee Rolbiecki 2-6 6-6 10, Jeren Rost 1-3 4-8 6, McKenzie Tolk 2-6 4-7 8, McKenna Yost 1-7 5-6 7, Ireland Stassen 1-6 5-8 7, Grace Hennen 1-2 0-0 3, Kennedi Jurrens 0-0 0-0 0, Kenadi Arndt 0-1 0-0 0, Dakoda Hennen 1-2 0-0 3, Faith Myhre 0-0 0-0 0 ... 3-pointers: G.Hennen 1, D.Hennen 1 ... Rebounds: Stassen 8, Rost 6, Yost 5, Rolbiecki 4, Arndt 2, Tolk 1 ... Assists: Stassen 2, Yost 1, Tolk 1 ... Steals: Rolbiecki 3, Yost 3, Stassen 2, Arndt 1, G.Hennen 1, Jurrens 1, Rost 1.