ROCHESTER – After keeping Stewartville at arm’s length for most of the game, the Austin Packers were able to pull back late on Friday night to claim a 70-57 win over the Tigers in the league title game. Section 1AAA at the Mayo Civic Center.
Ultimately, the game ended in clutch shots from a variety of sources that ultimately put Stewartville out in the second half, including key points from Austin’s three senior starters and players from bench.
But it wasn’t without drama, as the No. 2-seeded Tigers made things really uncomfortable for the No. 1-seeded Packers at times.
“Stewartville played a hell of a game, right? said head coach Eric Zoske after the game. “They hit shots everywhere in the first half. We played four different defenses and they were running on all of them. They frustrated us a bit. I felt like we were playing hard but when they hit shots like that we have to dig and scratch and make an adjustment. I owe them a lot of credit for putting us in this situation.
The Packers entered the half 39-31, a lead they protected for the first half of the second half, fending off Tiger’s advances early in the second period.
A flurry of points by Stewartville of Keeley Steele, Ella Waltman and Savannah Hedin cut Austin’s lead to just one at 45-44, but Austin’s Ajiem Agwa took the upper hand with a layup and three points on back-to-back possessions to give Austin the 50-44 lead.
“I think it’s huge that we can trust our girls to come off our bench and step in for us and take care of it,” said Olivia Walsh, who herself scored 15 points and, along with Hope Dudycha , helped push the game further. out of reach towards the end.
Dudycha finished with a game-high 22 points.
After Stewartville scored the first two points of the game, Austin took control led by Reanna Schmitt, who was able to take advantage of a small Tigers team inside to set the tone in the first half.
The senior scored 16 points on the night, but 14 of those points came in the first half.
“It was a big game for us,” Schmitt said. “I don’t want our season to end and I know none of the others wanted our season to end so I just had to play hard. They’re a bit smaller in a team so I just had to go out there and do what I could do.
The Packers looked like they could push the game out of reach midway through the first half after a Cassidy Shute score put Austin 26-14, but Stewartville was again able to keep pace with the Packers. However, Walsh was sent to the line. She hit the first of two free throws, but missed at the back, only to catch a Schmitt flat on the rebound to put in the follow-up bucket to put Austin up 29-17.
“She’s kinda under the radar, but she’s been doing this really all year,” Zoske said of Walsh. “I think the biggest boost for her was at Eden Prairie. They struggled to keep her, so we used that experience. She’s been doing this for a while and I think she’s going to get better.
With a 24-5 record, the Packers will begin play in the Minnesota State Women’s Basketball Tournament on Wednesday, March 16 at the Maturi Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus.
Zoske will once again look to his senior leadership to lead the charge as they did on Friday night.
“Just a big shout out to the seniors,” Zoske said. “To keep fighting. For these girls, who went to the state twice, now the experience is coming back. It will be a very fun way to top off a great experience for these three seniors.