By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER —
Two years ago, the Mankato East girls basketball team advanced to the section semifinals before losing. Last year, the Cougars made it to the section championship game but lost.
Surely, this season East would take that final step and get into the state tournament.
However, the Cougars fell behind early and lost 54-52 to New Prague in the Section 2AAA championship game, missing a trip to the state tournament by a lousy basket.
“That first half, we looked a little out of sorts,” East coach Mike Barger said. “We played better in the second half.”
East committed 11 turnovers in the first half, which turned a 7-2 lead into a 31-23 deficit at the break. Abby Connell made three 3-pointers as the Trojans sagged into the middle to stop Claire Ziegler, who had scored 62 points in the first two playoff games.
“I think we were going too fast at the start,” Connell said. “We were rushing everything, and we weren’t running our plays. We just weren’t playing our game.”
In the second half, New Prague answered each East run, still up 47-39 with 5:00 to play. Minnie Frederick’s 3-pointer cut the lead to five, and Ziegler added two free throws.
Connell made her sixth 3-pointer to make it a two-point game at 1:37, and Frederick made a free throw that made it 53-52 with 20 seconds to play.
“We knew that they were going to pack it in against Claire, and Abby had a great night,” Barger said. “If you had told me that Abby would have six 3s and 20 points, I would have thought we’d win.”
New Prague added a free throw in the final seconds, and a last East shot came off as the opponent once again got to celebrate the section championship.
“We’re not used to playing against teams that defend our posts so well,” Connell said. “Usually, we just throw it in to the post, and they go to work. They did a great job of taking that away.”
Connell scored 20 points and had five rebounds. Ziegler finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds, and Frederick scored 13 points. East only had five turnovers in the second half. The Cougars had a 38-32 rebounding advantage.
“At the start of the game, everybody was fired up, and it took us too long to come down,” Barger said. “In the second half, we got Claire going a little. We just didn’t adjust early enough.”
New Prague (22-6) advances to the state tournament, which begins Wednesday at Williams Arena. East returns several key players, hoping to take that next step next season.
“It’s disappointing for the second year in a row,” Barger said. “This is a good section, and any of the teams could have won. If a couple shots fall differently, maybe we win.”