By Joe Tischler
Special to The Free Press
On paper, the Section 2AAA girls basketball semifinal game at the Lund Center figured to be one of the better games of the postseason.
Mankato East and Marshall were next to each other in the section rankings, seeded No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, and they were side by side in the state rankings as well with the Tigers fourth and the Cougars fifth.
If there was a difference, it was East junior forward Claire Ziegler. She scored 28 points, including some big baskets down the stretch to propel the Cougars to the section championship game with a 53-46 win.
“This game was so intense,” Ziegler said. “We knew from the beginning it was going to be hard. The last time we played them was pretty close (a 69-61 East win in December). We knew we just had to play hard and keep the intensity all the way through.”
East’s game plan was clear early on — beat Marshall down the court and then lob the ball into their post players for easy baskets.
The Cougars’ first four baskets followed that pattern as Taylor Karge and Ziegler scored two baskets each off three assists from Minnie Frederick and one from Karge to build an early 8-4 lead.
The Cougars extended their lead with the help of senior guard Marta Anderson. With the game tied at 8-all, Anderson drained a 3-pointer to start the rally and had a steal and lay-in to end it, giving East its biggest lead of the game, 21-14, with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
Marshall came back to tie it at 30-all with 15 seconds left, but another lob pass from Frederick to Ziegler for an easy lay-in with five seconds to go gave East a 32-30 lead at the break.
If the first half was a run-and-shoot type of game, the second half was anything but. With high stakes, both teams seemed to play tense. Marshall had a field goal drought of longer than eight minutes at one point and East didn’t make a basket nearly six minutes during a stretch.
One player who didn’t play tight was Ziegler as she scored 15 of East’s 21 second half points.
“She’s a big-time player,” East coach Mike Barger said. “I bet she had 12 or 14 rebounds, too, but she does it all for us. She’s a great competitor, a great player.”
The biggest basket of the game came with 3:25 left and East leading 48-44. Ziegler drove down the right side of the lane, laid the ball in and was fouled on the play. She let out a big yell, stomped her feet, and hugged the first teammate she saw.
“I knew that was a big point in the game,” Ziegler said. “I knew that was going to be an important basket and I got a little excited.”
East (23-4) advances to their second straight section championship game where they will play New Prague, a 66-41 winner over Willmar, on Thursday night in St. Peter.