By Denny Weller
Special to The Free Press
MANKATO — Junior forward Claire Ziegler netted her 1,000th point Saturday afternoon as a diversified Mankato East girl’s basketball team moved one step closer to a Big Nine Conference title with a 67-51 win over Winona.
While Ziegler showed off her tremendous around-the-basket skills in firing in a team-best 19 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots, it was the Cougars’ role players — senior guard Marta Anderson, senior wing Bria Armstrong and freshman center Allison Taylor — who were key ingredients in East’s 18th win in 21 starts.
“Those players played very well for us today, they’re like defensive hawks for us,” Ziegler said. “We knew Winona had some good post players we we had to come out strong. It was a little iffy at first and things didn’t go the way we planned. We knew it would be tough to rebound against them but we went in there hard. ... We worked very hard defensively.”
Winona (11-9 overall, 9-4 in Big Nine) got a layup off the opening tip from Maggie Messmann and opened up an 8-3 lead on 6-foot junior Ellen Blacklock’s follow-up basket four minutes into the game. Armstrong then came off the bench to drill a pair of 3-pointers off the left wing before Ziegler’s driving left-hander off the glass trimmed the Winhawks’ advantage to 12-11.
Armstrong left the contest moments later with a left leg injury, but the Cougars (12-1 in Big Nine) continued with the spark she generated in building a 42-22 halftime cushion. East, which had five turnovers in the opening three minutes, connected on 10 of its first 11 shots, with senior guard Minnie Frederick’s pull-up 3-pointer and Taylor’s 14-footer putting the Cougars in front 26-16.
Ziegler’s third point of the game — a foul shot that received a friendly bounce — gave her 1,000 points and enabled her to join brother Brody in the execlusive 1,000-point club. Ziegler’s strong moves to the hoop produced 11 first-half points while junior forward Taylor Karge scored nine points and Taylor chipped in six.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Ziegler said. “I mean, I’ve worked very hard and I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates, especially Minnie for all the great passes she’s made to me. I was pretty nervous at the start. We actually drew up a play for me to shoot a three, but that didn’t work so it was a little nerve-racking.”
Ziegler’s three-basket flurry — a putback, a baseline drive and a down-the-boulevard banker — got the Cougars rolling to start the second half. Anderson’s layup and two free throws kept the surge going before Taylor’s thee-point play produced the game’s largest lead at 58-32 with 9:17 remaining. Anderson finished with a career-high 10 points while Taylor totaled 10 points and four rebounds.
“Once we settled down and started playing better defense, we got a better streak going for us,” Anderson said. “We’ve been working on boxing out a lot in practice and defending as a team. Minnie and Claire are always up to their finest every game so it was really good to have everyone play well together. That kind of play will help us get ready for the sections.”
Winona made a final charge behind a trio of 3-pointers from Dulcey Milek along with two baskets and a pair of foul shots from Blacklock. After Anna Eddy’s layup off a steal cut the deficit to 61-49 with 3:14 to go, free throws by Anderson and Frederick along with Ziegler’s rebound basket put things away. Frederick, who is seven points shy of 1,000 points, ened up with nine points, four assists and five steals.
“Our defense picked us up today,” East coach Mike Barger said. “I thought we played a nice little 2-3 zone and we stayed in it because they never attacked the middle against it. Bria gave us that spark when we were down early and I hope she’s all right. Those role players are important with some playing good defense and others playing good defense.
“It was a big day for Claire as well. She’s earned those 1,000 points. She works very hard and get her money’s worth every game with a lot of contact in there.”
East dominated the boards 37-23 and committed fewer turnovers 22-20. The Cougars put through 23 of 48 field-goal attempts for 54 percent while the Winhawks made 17 of 42 for 40 percent. Blacklock led Winona with 14 points and seven rebounds while Audrey Scharmer and Milek chipped in 11 and 10 points, respectively.
East can all but clinch the Big Nine championship Tuesday at home with a victory over second-place Rochester Mayo.