Head coach Cody Pulju knew it wouldn’t be easy for the Menahga girls basketball team to earn a return trip to the state Class A tournament.

The defending section champions faced a rematch with Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa for a trip to state in the Section 5A championship game Friday night (March 8) at Fergus Falls. In last year’s section title game, the Braves prevailed 56-52 to earn their first trip to state.

This year’s section championship game was another close battle before the senior duo of Alyssa Peterson and Cierra Ahlf combined to hit six straight free throws down the stretch to seal a 46-39 victory.

Defense dominated the first half as Menahga managed to build a 20-11 lead at the break.

After Allisa Knight opened the game with a putback to give B-B-E a 2-0 lead, a layup and 3-pointer by Greta Hillukka and a 3-pointer by Tara Hendrickson gave the Braves a 9-5 lead with 11:10 to play in the first half. After B-B-E made it 9-8 at the 9:03 mark, the Braves went on an 11-1 run as two layups by Hendrickson, a jumper off a steal by Peterson, and a layup and 3-pointer by Ahlf produced a 20-9 lead with 2:46 before the break. Knight’s inside basket made it 20-11 at the half.

Both teams struggled on the offensive end in the first 18 minutes as Menahga made only 8 of 26 shots (including going 3 for 12 on 3-pointers) while the Jaguars made only 4 of 22 field goals while turning the ball over 10 times.

That basket by Knight to end the half sparked B-B-E’s offense as the No. 1 seed in the South went on a 16-4 run to take a 25-24 lead with 13:18 to play. Knight (a 5-foot-11 forward) hit three straight inside baskets, Brittany Berge hit a jumper, Jenna Dingmann scored off a rebound, Macie Kirckoff (another 5-11 forward) scored inside and Knight hit a jumper to cap off that run and give B-B-E its first lead since the opening basket.

Ahlf hit a 3-pointer to give Menahga a 27-25 lead at the 12:32 mark before Knight scored off a rebound to tie it at 27-27 with 11:10 to play. A layup by Peterson was countered with another basket off a rebound by Knight as the game was tied at 29-29 with 8:35 to go. A jumper by Ahlf was offset by a layup by Knight for a 31-31 deadlock with 8:08 remaining.

The Braves took the lead for good on Ahlf’s 3-pointer at the 7:39 mark, Hendrickson’s jumper at the 6:51 mark and Hillukka’s 3-pointer at the 4:18 mark. That 8-2 run gave the No. 1 seed from the North a 39-33 advantage.

A layup by Kirckof made it 39-35 with 3:32 to play before a layup by Grace Illies with 1:51 to play and a free throw by Kirckof with 1:50 left cut the gap to 40-38.

Peterson hit two free throws for a 42-38 lead at the 1:15 mark before Dingmann hit a free throw to make ot 42-39 with 51 seconds left. Peterson and Hendrickson both missed free throws, but Peterson hit two free throws for a 44-39 lead with :09 showing before Ahlf hit two free throws with :01 remaining to seal the win. B-B-E missed two 3-pointers and turned the ball over twice in the final minute.

Ahlf sparked the Braves with 16 points (including three 3-pointers), eight rebounds and four steals while Hillukka added 11 points and five rebounds and Peterson scored 10 points. The win gave Menahga a 29-1 record entering the state quarterfinals on March 14 at Maturi Pavillion on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Knight’s 16 points and 10 rebounds and Kirckof’s 9 points and 12 rebounds led the Jaguars, who end the season with a 24-6 record.