By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
In 2010-11, Alyssa Mettler and the Mankato Loyola girls basketball team suffered through an 0-25 season.
Two years later, the Crusaders are going to the Class A girls state basketball tournament for the first time since 1981.
“It doesn’t even seem real that we’re going to state,” Mettler said after the Crusaders’ 47-36 win over Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity (22-5) in the Section 2A finals Friday at Bresnan Arena. “Now, going to state after we worked so hard, I can’t even wrap my head around it.”
The Crusaders prevailed the same way they had throughout the course of their 26-3 season — as a team.
“It’s the perfect game to win because that’s how it’s been all year,” Loyola head coach Rick Theuninck said. “You never know who’s going to step up but someone always does. That’s how you win, and that’s how this team wins.”
In the first half, both teams appeared flustered by the stakes. Turnovers were rampant (15 first half turnovers for Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity, 10 for Loyola), but Loyola settled down after the first frantic minutes, due in large part to the front line combo of Mettler and Annie Nawrocki, the self-proclaimed “Beast Squared” duo.
Mettler grabbed several offensive rebounds and scored eight first half points, and also dished off a couple assists to Nawrocki.
“We are each other’s biggest fans,” said Nawrocki, who, along with Mettler, scored 10 points. “It’s been incredible working with Alyssa all year.”
“Allysa and Annie were huge,” Theuninck said. “They were finishing around the basket, they came up with huge rebounds. I’m so proud of those two; they work so hard together, and for them to have success like this together, it’s awesome.”
The Crusaders were forced to handle adversity early, when guard Lindsey Theuninck had to leave the game with a toe injury. She returned later in the half, and though clearly hobbled, helped the Crusaders enter halftime leading 20-12. The Bulldogs struggled to find an offensive cohesion in the first half, but were within striking distance after Karlea Kyllo’s 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in the half cut the deficit to single digits.
“I didn’t think it would be a high scoring game, but I thought it’d be a fast game,” Rick Theuninck said. “And that’s what it was. Our defense in the first half was remarkable; they were trying to work it inside and couldn’t get it inside. It was the best defense we’d played all year in the first half.”
The Crusaders scored two quick buckets to begin the second half — a Mettler layup and a Aunikah Bastian pull-up jumper — and widen the advantage to 24-12. But the Bulldogs, led by Kyllo and leading scorer Courtney Scoblic, went on a 16-5 run to put the score at 29-28 Loyola midway through the second half. Loyola scored the next five points to pad the lead, but the Bulldogs answered again, trimming the margin to 38-35 after a pair of Scoblic free throws with four minutes remaining.
“(Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity) just wouldn’t go away,” said Rick Theuninck, who was named Section 2A Coach of the Year after the game. “But we just kept grinding and grinding and grinding, and I mean, why wouldn’t you at this point?”
With both teams in “bonus” free-throw situations, the final minutes came down to a free-throw contest. And the Crusaders won — both the contest and the game — sending the team’s bench and home crowd into hysteria.
“When it hit 30 seconds left,” Nawrocki said, “it just felt unreal. I went numb. To do it together is the best feeling in the world.”
“You just can’t pick one person off our team,” Mettler, the other half of “Beast Squared,” said. “And we have the best fans in the state. ... We’re amazing together.”
Mankato Loyola begins state tournament play at 5 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena against the Section 8A winner.