CLASS A GIRLS BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT: Closing in on a championship

Photo by Sam Thiel Minneota's Abby Hennen puts up a shot over a pair of Heritage Christian Academy defenders during their Class A semifinal game Friday at Williams Arena.

MINNEAPOLIS – The Minneota girls basketball team knew it was going to have to maintain a high level of physicality if they wanted to keep its tournament run going. With an evenly-matched Heritage Christian Academy opponent looking for a similar outcome, the No. 1 seeded Vikings were able to match the Eagles throughout the entirety of the game and emerged with a tight 55-50 victory Friday afternoon, putting themselves in a spot in the Class A championship game.

With HCA holding a slim one-point lead with a little more than four minutes to play, the Vikings were able to regain the lead on a pair of free throws from Abby Hennen. After neither team could find the bottom of the basket on the next couple of possessions, Minneota would draw a foul with 1:35 to go, as Abby Hennen connected on two more from the line to give the Vikings a 51-47 advantage.

After the Eagles got a free throw to cut the deficit to three, Minneota drew another foul as Abby Hennen went to the line again and made two more to push the Vikings lead to 52-48 with 1:07 left before a Lizzy Gillingham layup made it a six-point advantage for Minneota.

Abby Hennen said she knew she had to be confident at the line and was able to step up and make them when they needed to most.

“On Thursday, I kind of struggled with my free throws, so I knew I had to focus more and had to be confident when I went up there,” she said. “At the end of the game, I didn’t really want to worry about it and just got kind of lucky they went in.”

HCA would get a layup with 20 seconds remaining to draw to within five, but couldn’t get any closer as the Vikings held on to advance to the title game.

Minneota coach Chad Johnston said they were able to make some necessary adjustments going into the second half and were able to get the boost they needed as a result.

“I talked to the girls at halftime, I wasn’t really upset with our defense, you’re going to see good teams up here. They’ve got some scorers and do some very good things on offense so it wasn’t so much the defensive side of things that was upsetting me. Offensively we got going on a fast start and for a while at 18 we were stalled there for a long time and we weren’t being efficient and that was credit to them,” Johnston said. “The second half we made an adjustment like we’ve done multiple times this year, we put Abby in the paint and felt we had a mismatch there and she obviously responded to that and that was kind of that little kicker that we needed to do to just get over the hump, so credit to the girls and defensively in the second half, I felt we did a wonderful job.”

Back-and-forth play

The Vikings, hoping to get out to a better start on Friday than they did against Red Lake, did just that as Minneota scored the first eight points of the game thanks to 3-pointers from Morgan and Abby Hennen. HCA would respond quickly, though, cutting the deficit to 10-6 before a 3-pointer from the Eagles gave HCA the lead at 15-14 with 11:42 left in the first half.

The two teams would then go toe-to-toe with each other the rest of the frame, with the Eagles taking a 24-18 lead with six minutes to go before a 3-point play and a layup from Lydia Sussner put the Vikings back in front at 26-25 with 3:05 left. More back-and-forth play ensued in the final minutes of the first half, with HCA taking a slim 30-29 lead going into the locker rooms.

Second-half spark

Just like its first-half counterpart, the second half was a constant back-and-forth performance with each team giving very little separation.

The Eagles jumped out to a quick start in the second frame, taking a 40-33 lead but the Vikings battled back to take the lead, as Abby Hennen took charge with a pair of free throws and three layups to give Minneota a 43-41 lead with under nine to play. HCA would answer with a small run of its own to take the lead back and set the stage for the tight finish.

Abby Hennen said in a tight battle where momentum could shift at any moment, she was able to help create that spark for her team thanks to her teammates.

“My teammates did a really good job looking in and throwing good passes to me in the post. I just tried to push her out of the lane as much as I could and seal her, which got me some wide- open layups,” she said. “I knew that we needed the momentum on our side at the end of the game when it was only a two-point game. A big defensive stop is a really good way to get momentum on your side, so it was lucky I didn’t get called for a foul.”

Abby Hennen led the way for the Vikings with 21 points while Sussner added 13 and Morgan Hennen and Gillingham each had seven. Sussner led in rebounds with 10 while Morgan Hennen led in assists with six.

Defensively, Minneota held the Eagles to just 18 of 51 shooting from the floor, including just 1 of 10 from beyond the arc. Johnston was pleased with the defensive effort, in particular with the performance of Morgan Hennen, who was assigned to stop HCA’s Taylie Scott.

“We all did something different and we all did a lot of good things and they’re doing great things as a team,” Johnston said. “Morgan has kind of been that player throughout the year for us, she’s always going to be on someone’s No. 1 point guard and she really did a phenomenal job of stepping up. I think most of Taylie’s baskets came on second attempts and she’s a great ballplayer but we were able to help off a little bit. It was a great team effort, but individually Morgan just did a phenomenal job on a great basketball player.”

Minneota (29-1) will face No. 2 seed Goodhue today in the championship game at noon at Williams Arena. Johnston said going into the game, they just need to continue to play with a high level of confidence.

“I guess our big thing for our girls, we’ve said it from Day 1, have confidence. When we got down, we stayed the course, be confident in what we’re capable of doing and somebody will step up,” Johnston said. “They’re going to try and take one thing away and we really feel like we have an answer for something else and that’s what we need to do to be successful.”