Girls' basketball: Country Christian takes state title in last-second 56-54 win over Nixyaawii
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In a stunning matchup that came down to the last few seconds, the County Christian girls' basketball team has won the 2018 Class 1A State Championship 56-54 over Nixyawii.
The Golden Eagles came into the game on a 56-game win streak, having won every game for nearly two full seasons. Their last loss came, fittingly, from the Cougars on March 4, 2016 in the semifinal round.
Coming into the matchup, everything put Nixyaawii as the favorite as they had dominated every team this year â€“ they won every game by at least 18 points, and cruised through the first two rounds of the state tournament with 44- and 29-point wins. Country Christian was the clear underdog, and head coach Russell Halverson said that despite that fact, the Cougars were feeding off of it.
"I can tell the girls loved it," he said. "I think it allowed them to play fairly loose and just get after it, and that was part of the gameplan up front to motivate them: I said 'Hey, you really have nothing to lose.'"
"This team just finds a way to win. Whatever challenges they face, they just find ways to win, there's just something in their DNA," Halverson said.
The Cougars found themselves down 54-46 with 2:45 to play, and needed to make something happen.
And happen it did.
Country Christian took complete control of the game and scored eight unanswered points to tie the game up at 54 with less than a minute to play. To start the run off, senior Mollie Lewandowski, who was unanimously named the Class 1A Player of the Year, hit a pair of free throws after being fouled by Nixyaawii senior Milan Schimmel, who was substituted out of the game afterwards. That was perhaps the turning point for the Cougars as the Golden Eagles began to play a bit frantically, turning the ball over and making some erroneous fouls.
Senior Meghan McGrath grabbed a steal as junior Sarah Phillips then went to the line after being fouled by Golden Eagles' senior Kaitlynn Melton as Nixyaawii hit their eighth team foul and put Country Christian into the bonus. Phillips hit her free throw to make it a five-point game.
Then after Country Christian senior Anna Farner, who was named to the All-Tournament Second Team, turned the ball over, she got it right back with a steal, and was then fouled by Nixyaawii senior EllaMae Looney and sent to the free throw line, where she sunk the shot to make the game 54-50. Shortly after, Farner connected again on a jumper to make it a two-point game as the Golden Eagles burned a timeout.
30 seconds later, Nixyaawii senior Mary Stewart missed a free throw as McGrath secured the defensive rebound, passing the ball off to Lewandowski, who landed a big-time double to tie the game up at 54 with 56 seconds remaining in the game.
With ten seconds left, Stewart missed a jumper as Phillips grabbed the rebound and Country Christian burned their final timeout.
After McGrath hit Farner on the inbound pass with less than ten seconds to play, Farner made magic happen.
Despite the hefty knee brace protecting her surgically-repaired ligaments just a few months prior, Farner turned on the jets and split a pair of Nixyaawii defenders, who were attempting to executive their insanely-effective full-court press that had worked so well for them all season.
Farner put them on skates as she made them run into each other and fall to the ground, made her way down the court, and found a wide-open Lewandowski in the paint with a bounce pass, who then sunk the layup to take a two-point lead with 3.1 seconds left to play.
"Breaking through those defenders, I immediately knew that we had numbers, so I decided to attack the key," Farner said. "When I drew two defenders towards me there was a perfect passing lane to Mollie, and I passed to her with full confidence the ball would go in."
The crowd and team both erupted, but Halverson knew that the game wasn't over yet.
"I have seen two state championship games be lost in that amount of time," he said. "I was telling them that this game was not over, I put what I thought was one of my best defensive teams out there, and I was under the impression that with 3.1 seconds left, they could get Mary [Stewart] the ball even clear up at the end court like that and she can get up past half court for a three-point shot, which is well within her wheelhouse."
Halverson knew he had to cover the whole court so he put players at half court, at the three-point line, and two posted in the key, since they only needed two points to tie it up. He told Farner to play a full-deny on the inbound without fouling Stewart.
"I told [Farner] that [Stewart] is a good enough athlete that she is going to get the ball on the inbound, but she's going to be so focused on you that it's going to give her less time to focus on what she wants to do when she gets it."
And sure enough, Stewart got the inbound pass and made her way up as far as she could, reaching only the three-quarter quarter mark. She tossed up a one-handed throw and missed the backboard by a few feet. At that point, the game was over.
"After a couple days to decompress, I continue to feel amazed as to what our team accomplished," Farner said. "This title is one that means the most to me because of the adversities we had to overcome to obtain it; I personally believe we had to fight the hardest for the title, making the win so much sweeter."
Two of those adversities came in the form of individuals, namely Farner and McGrath, who both battled knee injuries suffered prior to the basketball season that required surgery to mend. McGrath was able to join the team earlier on in the season, but Farner wasn't able to come back until just before the playoffs began. It was clear, however, that she never missed a beat, and other than the knee brace, it hardly looked like she had ever been injured at all. She was still one of the fastest and most athletic athletes in the state.
Halverson has said multiple times that he had doubts about this team throughout the year. The amount of challenges they faced were near insurmountable, but the endless drive his players showed throughout the course of the season could not be outmatched by any number of adversities.
"The reality is sinking in for what these girls have accomplished," Halverson said. "I can honestly say going into that game that I had doubts of whether we could compete with [Nixyaawii], and shame on me."
This is the second state championship for the Country Christian girls' basketball team after winning in 2016. They'll graduate a class of five seniors that have all been integral to the program's success throughout their high school careers: Mollie Lewandowski, Anna Farner, Meghan McGrath, Sierra Ross, and Debby Grandle. Despite that fact, they have a stunningly-talented group of returners that includes juniors Phillips, Katie Sandberg, and Kendall Halverson, a group of freshmen that all saw significant minutes this season, and an incoming class that has loads of talent as well.
"My body is still recovering because we literally put everything on the floor, and I had to play the quickest defense of my entire season," Phillips said. "I still can't believe it; it makes me tear up just thinking about it."
"Out of all the state championships I've been a part of, this was the most meaningful and my favorite. It means a lot to me because we truly never gave up and it took all we had," she said.
Country Christian 56, Nixyaawii 54
Lewandowski â€“ 26 points, 10 rebounds
McGrath â€“ 13 points, 12 rebounds
Phillips â€“ 7 points, 5 rebounds
Sandberg â€“ 4 points, 2 rebounds
Farner â€“ 3 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists
K. Halverson â€“ 3 points, 3 rebounds
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