McBAIN – The first three minutes of the fourth quarter made the difference.
The St. Francis girls were clinging to a 39-37 lead after three quarters against stubborn Johannesburg-Lewiston on Tuesday in the Class C regional semifinals at McBain but scored the first 11 points of the final period to gain a double-digit lead on the way to a 56-41 victory.
The Gladiators (22-2) advanced to the regional finals on Thursday at 7 p.m. against Shelby, which held off Pine River 58-56 in the other semifinal. The Cardinals closed out the season with a 22-2 log.
“Johannesburg is a tough, well-coached team,” St. Francis coach Mike Knudsen said in the wake of the hard-fought win. “They came to play and gave us a very tough fight. Fortunately, we were able to finish strong and come out on top.”
The Gladiators led 10-5 after one quarter and 25-17 at the half, but saw their lead shrink to just two points in the third quarter as the Cardinals stormed back behind their all-out pressuring defense.
A driving layup from Johannesburg freshman Maddie Showerman sparked a 9-3 run that brought the Cardinals from a 36-28 deficit to within two points in the last 3:18 of the quarter. A 3-pointer from Johannesburg senior Abby Schlicher in the final seconds trimmed the St. Francis lead to 39-37 and appeared to give the Cardinals the momentum going into the final eight minutes of play.
St. Francis senior guard Lauren Buckel, who had earlier drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer ending the half, quickly got the momentum back on the Gladiator side, however. She ignited the Glads’ game-turning three-minute run with a layup and then hit a breakaway following a steal seconds later.
Senior Liza Erickson drained a pair of free throws after that, Kaitlyn Freeney converted a steal into a basket, Lydia Arthur canned a jumper and Freeney hit a free throw as the St. Francis lead ballooned to 50-37 with 4:47 left to play. The Gladiators were not seriously threatened again after that.