NRHEG-Loyola girls hoops

Mankato Loyola’s Meghan Kelly and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva’s Miranda Wolf fight for a loose ball in the Panthers’ victory Thursday at Fitzgerald Gym.

Sonja Reeves
The Free Press, Mankato, MN

New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva freshman Kristina Cole’s two free throws were quick, but by no means painless, as the visiting Panthers put away Loyola with a 40-36 Gopher conference girls basketball victory at Fitzgerald Gym.

With the Panthers up 37-36 with less than 20 seconds to play, Cole hauled in a rebound and was fouled. The 5-foot-11 post approached the line, got the bounce pass from the referee and, almost as soon as she could get the ball in her hands, put up two free throws that helped send the Panthers away with a victory. It was almost as if she had some place better to be.

“I just concentrate and tell myself ‘I have to make these two,’” said Cole, who tallied a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“She’s clutch at the line,” said Panthers’ head coach Mindy Sparby. “She’s a freshman with ice water in her veins. She never changes emotions. She’s never up, she’s never down, she’s just steady.”

Both teams struggled out of the gate, but Loyola built a 6-0 lead just over six and a half minutes into the game. The Panthers scored the next five points and battled the Crusaders close the rest of the half.

The Crusaders managed to get into the break up 20-17 after seniors Nicole Menke and Meghan Kelly scored all but one Loyola basket, accounting for 10 and seven points, respectively.

The second half opened with Menke getting whistled for her fourth foul just 30 seconds after the opening horn. The 5-5 forward did not see the floor again until there was eight minutes remaining. A visibly disappointed Menke eventually fouled out with 2:23 to play.

Despite playing without their hottest player, the Crusaders were able to jump to a 30-23 lead. The Panthers put together the most impressive offensive run of the contest, however, taking the energy out of Loyola. The seven-point run, which saw four Panthers score, gave NRHEG a 32-30 lead with about nine minutes remaining.

The Panthers took care of business at the free-throw line from there, thanks in part to Cole, to finish off Loyola.

“Once we got the lead I thought the kids did a nice job of settling down and not rushing things,” Sparby said. “Just situational play down at the end; I thought we did a great job with (it).”

Alyssa Kerkoff, another Panther freshman, scored nine points. Kelly scored six more points in the second half to lead the Crusaders with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“Our problem tonight was we just couldn’t find a way to make a basket,” Loyola head coach Kari Koester said. The Crusaders tallied just five second-half baskets.

The Panthers (4-3) play Canby Thursday in the St. Clair Holiday Tournament. Loyola hosts the eight-team Crusader Classic, playing Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial Thursday.

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