Cougars caged in 1A quarterfinals
Seventh-ranked Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton pulls away from No. 8 AGWSR, 57-47
DES MOINES — There are times in sports where the final score doesn’t fully represent what happened in the game.
Wednesday’s 1A quarterfinal matchup between No. 8 AGWSR and No. 7 Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton in the Iowa Girls’ High School State Basketball Tournament was one of those situations.
Though the Spartans walked away a 10-point winner, defeating the Cougars 57-47, it was truly a one-possession game until the final few minutes.
AGWSR head coach Laurie Gann said her girls did all they could for most of the game, but when it came down to crunch time they had no answer for Sophia Peppers, the Spartans’ leading scorer.
“I thought we played pretty well for maybe three and a half quarters,” Gann said after her team’s elimination. “We had a little span there where I think a little bit of fatigue set in, we made some mental mistakes, and we had way too much Peppers today. She is just a whale of a ball player and we didn’t always have the answer for her with our matchups.”
The Cougars (21-3) finished ahead in each of the first two quarters, narrowly taking a one-point lead into halftime. At times it seemed AGWSR would pull away, but Exira/EHK kept finding answers to runs and pulling back close, actually taking a two-point lead after the third quarter.
Things would continue to go back and forth for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, but after knotting things up at 43-all the Spartans went on a quick 5-0 run, helped by a few steals by Peppers, expanding out to a 48-43 lead that they would never give up.
After getting that lead, Exira/EHK decided to take the air out of the ball for the final three minutes, passing back and forth just inside the timeline until AGWSR was forced to foul to save time.
Gann said she doesn’t disparage the tactic by the Spartans, saying given the opportunity she likely would have done the same.
“That’s probably something I’d do too, especially when you have Peppers and she can get the ball and we kind of panicked a little bit,” Gann said. “We are telling them to double-team Peppers so she doesn’t get the ball and we will gamble on fouling someone else, it just didn’t work out that way.”
Peppers finished with a game-high 24 points for Exira/EHK, followed by fellow senior Kealey Nealson with 18, meaning those two accounted for 42 of the Spartans’ 57 points. Gann said ultimately those two seniors wanted to win the game for their squad, and the Cougars just didn’t have an answer.
“They were a great team and those two seniors came to play and would not be denied and we struggled with stopping them,” Gann said.
This was the fourth-straight appearance at state for Exira/EHK, compared to this being the first time for AGWSR at Wells Fargo Arena since winning the 1A title back in 2009. Spartans head coach Tom Petersen said that level of experience his girls had playing on the biggest stage of the year made a huge difference in this game.
“Our two seniors are two that have been here for four straight years and they know what’s going on, and that showed obviously today,” Petersen said. “They’ve been there and done that, and that’s kind of what we’ve been relying on this year.”
Gann agreed that experience did play a part in the game, but more so because her girls had a hard time dealing with being down as the clock wound down.
“Experience level may have played a factor,” she said. “We told them before the game started to not worry about what happens at the end, let’s worry about the game, and I think some of them were looking at that clock when they got that five-point lead and got down because they wanted it so bad.”
Though it didn’t come out on their side, there were some great performances by the Cougar girls in the loss. Senior Mandy Willems finished with a team-high 14 points, while Taryan Barrick and Rachel Sicard each had eight.
The Spartans’ main goal was to shut Willems down and force someone else to step up, and for three quarters Barrick and Sicard filled that role nicely. Willems said she did what she could to get those two going because she knew if the defense had to focus down low it would open up the shooters on the outside.
“I thought we got our two posts, Taryan and Rachel, involved really well,” Willems said. “We kind of had the height advantage so coaches really stressed getting the ball into them and working through them because eventually when they are scoring so much they can kick out to shooters. I thought that worked well for the most part.”
Barrick had a bit of a scare in the first quarter, after a defensive stand she came up limping badly from rolling her ankle. She gutted out a few more minutes before being subbed in for to take care of her ailment, and the anguish on her face was unmistakable while sitting on the bench.
She didn’t let that injury stop her, however, as she returned strong in the second quarter and had a big six points in the third to get the Cougar offense moving. This isn’t the first time Barrick has played through injuries, and she said she knows she can overcome some temporary pain to help her team succeed.
“Pain is nothing, it is going to be here and it’s going to go, you have to fight through it,” she said. “I have been fighting through my hamstring for a while now, so it came for a couple of minutes but I knew I had to push through it and the team needed me so I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Fortunately when Barrick or any other player had to sit for a bit, AGWSR had a strong bench to turn to for some big minutes. The Cougar bench actually outscored the Spartan bench 5-2, and Gann said all the girls who came in gave a great effort when their name was called.
“In that second quarter especially when we were in a little bit of foul trouble Whitanie Nederhoff came in and really held her own,” Gann said. “We got some great bench play from Alyssa Hames and McKenna Kuper like all year and a lot of young kids got out there and got some experience, hopefully this experience for them will make them hungry to say they want to get back.”
Junior Aubrie Fisher, who finished the night with seven points on 3-for-7 shooting, said she truly has enjoyed this experience, especially since she got to do it with Willems in her final season.
“This is our most successful season since I’ve been here and it was really fun,” Willems said. “I have been playing with Mandy forever and I am going to miss her a lot, but it was great to get here with her for her senior season.”
Barrick echoed that sentiment, saying getting to compete in front of all the fans at the Well was almost an indescribable feeling.
“The experience was amazing, there’s no other words to explain it. Next year we have the chance to come back and we want to come back,” she said. “Next year we are just going to powerhouse through it because we want to be here next year.”
Willems, who will be playing basketball at NIACC next season, said she couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to earn this achievement with.
“I am super proud of our girls this season,” she said. “No one thought we would be here, after losing those seniors last year, no one thought we would be here. It was a good thing to have happen.”
While replacing Willems will be a difficult task, the Cougars are definitely set for success with the likes of Fisher, Barrick, Sicard, Kuper and Hames returning, just to mention a few.
Gann said the product on the court might not look the same, especially with the sharp-shooting Willems graduating, but she thinks they have a chance to return strong for a 2019 state run.
“We have a lot of kids, it might be a little bit different look without Mandy, you might not see us shooting the 3-ball as much, but we have a lot of kids to build around and work with and I know they loved this experience,” she said. “I know they are going to be ready to get try to get themselves back here again.”
Looking back on what she accomplished, helping the Cougars return to state for the first time in nine years, Willems understandably felt a little emotional with her time in an AGWSR uniform officially at a close, but she said the path she’s forged for other girls to follow is one of success, and she knows it won’t be another nine years before this team is back at the Well.
“I just tried to show the girls this year to never give up and no matter what anyone says to keep pushing because they can accomplish anything,” Willems said, fighting back tears with her final words.
Iowa High School Girls’ State Basketball Tournament
At Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Wednesday, Feb. 28
Springville 54, Bishop Garrigan 36
Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton 57, AGWSR 47
Newell-Fonda 61, Kee, Lansing 45
Central Decatur 52, Montezuma 48
Friday, March 2
Springville (22-3) vs. Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton (24-1), 1:30 p.m.
Newell-Fonda (25-0) vs. Central Decatur (25-0), 3:15 p.m.
Saturday, March 3
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.
Exira/Elk Horn-Kimballton 57, AGWSR 47
AGWSR (21-3) — Ally Finger 2-4 0-0 5, Mandy Willems 4-20 4-4 14, Aubrie Fisher 3-7 0-0 7, Taryan Barrick 4-10 0-0 8, Rachel Sicard 3-6 2-3 8, Alyssa Hames 2-2 0-0 4, Torie Brandt 0-0 0-0 0, McKenna Kuper 0-2 1-2 1, Whitanie Nederhoff 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS 18-51 7-9 57.
EXIRA/EHK (24-1) — Tatum Grubbs 1-3 1-2 4, Ellie Schultes 1-7 0-0 3, Kealey Nelson 6-11 6-8 18, Sophia Peppers 5-13 14-16 24, Kamryn Waymire 2-7 0-0 6, Jacey Anthofer 0-0 0-0 0, Leslie Caniglia 1-2 0-0 2. TOTALS 16-43 21-26 57.
AGWSR 13 14 11 9 — 47
EXIRA/EHK 12 14 14 17 — 57
3-Point Goals–AGWSR 4-21 (Willems 2-11, Finger 1-3, Fisher 1-5, Sicard 0-1, Kuper 0-1), Exira/EHK 4-18 (Waymire 2-6, Grubbs 1-3, Schultes 1-5, Peppers 0-4). Rebounds–AGWSR 27 (Willems 8), Exira/EHK 35 (Peppers 9). Assists–AGWSR 11 (Fisher 5), Exira/EHK 10 (Peppers 4). Total Fouls–AGWSR 21, Exira/EHK 10. Fouled Out–Finger.