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Menahga girls advance to first state tournament

Members of the Menahga girls basketball team posed with the Section 5A trophy after defeating Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 56-52 Friday night at Fergus Falls. Submitted photo

Head coach Cody Pulju knew the Menahga girls basketball team would face a battle from Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in Friday night’s Section 5A championship game at Fergus Falls.

Even though the Braves defeated B-B-E 65-39 in the second game of the season, Pulju expected a much closer game in the rematch with a trip to the state Class A tournament at stake.

For only the second time this season and the second game in a row, Menahga faced a halftime deficit. For the 30th time in 30 games this season, the Braves ended up victorious as some clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch led to a 56-52 victory and the first state berth in school history.

Menahga, the No. 1 seed in the North that entered this section final by averaging 70.2 points a game while allowing only 37.3 points a night, faced an early 15-7 deficit as Morgan Gronli hit three jumpers and a 3-pointer. Layups by Leah Schwartz and Megan Hendrickson and a jumper by Alyssa Peterson led the Braves in the early going.

A 3-pointer and layup by Cierra Ahlf and a layup by Annie Lake helped Menahga cut the gap to 19-16 before two layups by Macie Kirckof gave the Jaguars a 23-17 lead at the half.

After Kirckof opened the second half with a layup to give B-B-E a 25-17 lead, the Braves responded with a 10-0 run to claim their first lead of the game. Ahlf hit a 3-pointer, Hendrickson had a pair of layups and Ahlf had a layup as Menahga led 27-25 with 13:55 to play.

The rest of the game would feature five ties and 12 lead changes.

Cassandra Tensen hit a 3-pointer to give the Jaguars a 28-27 lead before Schwartz responded with a 3-pointer. A three-point play by Gronli and a jumper by Nicole Wesbur gave B-B-E a 33-30 lead before Tara Hendrickson hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 33-33. A 3-pointer by Gronli and a layup by Kirckof put the Jaguars in front 38-36 at the 9:17 mark.

Ahlf hit a jumper and Megan Hendrickson had a layup, but four missed free throws enabled the Jaguars to take a 43-42 lead behind layups by Kendra Schmitz and Grace Illies. Two free throws and a layup by Schwartz put Menahga back in front 46-45 at the 3:34 mark before a layup by Kirckof gave B-B-E a 47-46 lead.

A free throw and layup by Annie Lake gave Menahga a 49-47 advantage with 1:39 to play.

Menahga would hold on from there.

Ahlf and Lake hit a free throw each to offset a layup by Illies before a free throw by Gronli made it 51-50 with 21 seconds to go. Peterson sealed the win by hitting five free throws as the Braves prevailed in their closest game of the season. The previous closest game for the Braves this season was a 50-41 victory over New York Mills.

Megan Hendrickson (17), Ahlf (11), Schwartz (9), Peterson (9) and Lake (6) led a balanced scoring attack for the Braves. Megan Hendrickson had nine rebounds and Schwartz hauled down eight rebounds. Menahga, which was rated No. 5 in the latest state Class A poll, will enter the state tournament as the only undefeated Class A team with a 30-0 record.

Gronli (18) and Kirckof (13) hit double figures for the Jaguars, the No. 1 seed in the South that ended the season with a 22-8 record.

Menahga received the No. 5 seed for the state tournament and will open against No. 4 Minneota (25-4) Thursday at 1 p.m. at Williams Arena. The other state quarterfinal games Thursday pit No. 1 Lyle/Pacelli (29-1) against Heritage Christian Academy (19-10), No. 2 Mountain Iron-Buhl (28-2) against Stephen-Argyle (27-3) and No. 3 Ada-Borup/Norman County West (27-2) against Sleepy Eye (26-4). Lyle/Pacelli (No. 1), Mountain Iron-Buhl (No. 2), Ada-Borup/Norman County West (No. 6), Minneota (No. 7) and Stephen-Argyle (No. 10) were rated in the state poll.

The tournament continues Friday and Saturday at Target Center and Concordia-St. Paul.