BY MIKE DUNN
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — 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.
“That stretch at the start of the fourth quarter was definitely the turning point,” Knudsen said. “Lauren played an awesome game tonight. She had the big three at the end of the first half, then hit another big three in the third quarter and scored the first four points of the fourth quarter. She played great defense on top of that; she was outstanding at both ends of the floor.”
Johannesburg coach Heather Huff acknowledged that the fourth quarter run proved too much for her troops to overcome.
“We couldn’t come back after that,” she said. “The girls played their hearts out. I couldn’t be more proud of our effort. St. Francis was a little quicker and that caused us some problems. We hurried our shots at times and didn’t make shots we normally make.
“We still hung tough for three quarters but give St. Francis credit,” she added. “They forced turnovers against us and made the run at the start of the fourth quarter and we weren’t able to answer back.”
Both teams played the same type of suffocating, in-your-face defense in a game marked by intense, physical play at both ends. The Gladiators used their superior quickness and height to maintain a lead most of the way through but they weren’t able to pull away from the scrappy Cardinals until late in the contest.
Buckel ended up scoring six of her team-high 19 points in the final quarter and Erickson scored six of her eight points in the frame, going 4-for-4 from the stripe. Freeney scored four of her eight points in the final quarter as well.
Senior center Bridget Bussell hit for nine points, including the final six points of the first quarter, and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Glads. Buckel brought down eight rebounds and recorded six steals and Erickson generated five assists.
Knudsen also commended Erickson’s ball handling and floor leadership in the fourth quarter.
Schlicher, a 1,000-point scorer, capped an excellent prep career for Johannesburg with a game-high 20 points to go with eight rebounds and two steals. Showerman scored five with four steals while Hailey Weaver pulled down 10 boards and Hannah Huff hauled in eight.
Shelby (19-4) is a big, physical team that likes to go aggressively to the basket.
“They’re big and athletic; we know we’ll have to come out and play one of our better games,” Knudsen said. “We need the girls to continue to do the things that got us here: play good, hard defense and rebound. It’s going to be a war.”