Country Christian makes state finals three years in a row, returns every player next season

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAURA WARRINGTON  - Country Christian took home the Class 1A second place plaque after making it to the finals for the third year in a row. The Cougars return every player from this year's roster as they have no seniors on the squad.

For the third year in a row, the Country Christian girls' basketball team made it to the class 1A finals.

It wasn't easy, however, as the Cougars faced formidable opponents on the path to the title game.

"To go to a state title game, most programs dream to do that in their history, and these kids battled their way three years in a row," head coach Russell Halverson said.

In his nearly 20 years as a coach, Halverson has seen many talented teams come and go. He's coached the girls' team for 13 seasons now and has pretty much seen it all. But what makes this season's team special is something he's never seen before from any team: the Cougars have no seniors. They return every player next season, and you can bet they'll be looking to make a run at it again.

"I don't think I've ever seen a team make it to the finals without any seniors," he said. "Give them another year of maturity, give them a summer league; these kids develop leaps and bounds in a year, and I'm excited to see where we are next year."

And although the Cougars lost the title game to the otherworldly Nixaawii Golden Eagles who finished a perfect 27-0 season, Halverson doesn't care.

"To not only make it over there (to Baker) but then to battle through the toughest side of the bracket, I know they got their butts kicked in the title but frankly, I don't care," Halverson said. "Walking away, it's been one of the most satisfying years I've ever coached; those last three games they won, it came down to energy, effort, heart, and trust in their teammates."

Crane (Quarterfinals)

The Cougars outscored Crane by a few points every quarter, steadily pulling away for a 51-38 win to advance to the semis.

Sophomore Hannah Fincher had a big game as she went seven for 12 from the free throw line and ended with nine points and five rebounds. Halverson said he was impressed with her performance because of the hard pressure coming from Crane on the perimeter.

One of Crane's best players, six-foot tall senior Taylor Crafts, was one that most teams have to develop a whole game plan around. Halverson decided instead to put junior Mollie Lewandowski on her and see how she did, and if Crafts hurt them, they would adjust. But Lewandowski locked it down and held Crafts to only three points on the night as she put up 15 herself.

Crane also had a player make the first team All-Tournament team, senior Claire Hamond, whom junior Anna Farner was tasked with guarding. Farner ended up being faster than Hamond and stayed in her pocket the whole game and shut her down.

Adrian (Semifinals)

With no break in the tournament, teams had to play back-to-back games, and it started to wear on the Cougars.

But that didn't stop them as they were able to make what Halverson deemed as "one of the most crazy comeback end-of-the-wire wins" he's ever been a part of.

The Cougars found themselves down by 11 in the fourth quarter and ended up coming back to win by one point in the final seconds.

"We were down all game long and we struggled with the press and our rotation (the Cougars were missing junior Meghan McGrath due to injury), and the girls just kept fighting," Halverson said.

Halverson noticed when they were down in the fourth that Adrian began to show signs of fatigue as they pressed the whole game, which gave the Cougars an opportunity to pounce.

"I called a timeout and told the ladies to attack that press for some transitions and we could get back in this thing," Halverson said.

The Cougars also went into foul mode earlier than they might have needed to because Adrian was struggling from the line, which played a key role in the end of the game.

Adrian hit a three with 50 seconds left to go up by five, but the Cougars forced a turnover on an inbound with about 15 seconds left.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAURA WARRINGTON  - The 2017 Class 1A girls basketball All-Tournament team L-R: Nixyaawii junior Mary Stewart, Country Christian junior Mollie Lewandowski, Country Christian junior Anna Farner, Nixyaawii junior Milan Schimmel, and Crane senior Claire Hamond.

Then Country Christian took the lead when Fincher hit an incredibly athletic layup after getting her own rebound on the missed shot. Halverson told Farner to be selfish and make a move on the basket since they wanted either her or Lewandowski to shoot at that point, but Adrian had a girl in Lewandowski's pocket and Farner would have gotten a charge if she penetrated further. So she dumped the ball off to Fincher who missed the shot but managed to stop her momentum enough to reach back and grab the rebound and make the layup to take the lead by one.

Fincher also grabbed an and-one on the play and missed the free throw, but the Cougars were able to get possession and inbound from the baseline.

Lewandowski was sent to the line with 1.7 seconds left but missed her shot. By that point it was too late for Adrian to do anything, however, and Country Christian walked away with a one-point victory.

Nixyaawii (State championship)

At this point in the tournament and after putting forth an all-out effort against Adrian, the Cougars simply didn't have much left in the tank. Couple that with the fact that the Golden Eagles have what Halverson considers to be one of the best players in the state at any level in junior Mary Stewart, who finished the game with 34 points, there wasn't much they could do.

Country Christian went down 26-9 in the second quarter as Stewart took off. The Golden Eagles also had Milan Schimmel (sister of current WNBA star Shoni Schimmel, who was an All-American at Louisville) to complete the lethal guard tandem and wreak havoc on anyone they encountered.

So Halverson decided to run with it a bit and he put in every player on the team, giving everyone some minutes in the championship game.

Anna Farner and Mollie Lewandowski made the first team All-Tournament team alongside Schimmel, Stewart, and Hamond.

Conner Williams
Sports Reporter/News Contributor
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