Off to finals: Esko escapes Mora
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
DULUTH – To put Esko’s second-half defense into perspective Tuesday night, Mora equaled as many points as Savanna Trapp scored alone.
Yet, it was the Eskomos’ towering 6-foot-9 center who put it best.
“Defense is what wins you basketball games,” Trapp said. “We came out in the second half all fired up, and the rest was history.”
Esko made quick history of the Mustangs following the halftime horn, as the Eskomos held Mora to a mere 14 points en route to a come-from-behind 55-38 Section 7AA girls basketball semifinal win Tuesday evening at Romano Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.
Plagued by offensive struggles early on, fourth-ranked Esko (26-3) overcame a quick 20-6 deficit and climbed within 24-19 by halftime. Leaving the locker room, however, Trapp said they were confident, despite the fact they were still trailing.
“We knew it was now or never,” Trapp said. “We picked up our defense and knew it would get our offense going. We just kept going and kept persevering.”
Trapp scored the Eskomos’ opening eight points of the second half, when finally – less than four minutes in – Esko gained its first lead of the night, at 27-26. Mora only saw the advantage on one more occasion, as the Eskomos’ defense took over.
“They’re definitely a solid team,” Mora Coach Chad Elston said of Esko. “They have great defensive pressure and their players just fly around.”
“Defense is our strength,” Esko Coach Scott Antonutti added. “That was the spiel at halftime. We know defense is something you can control no matter what.”
From Trapp eliminating shots at the rim, to perimeter defense from backcourt mainstays Marisa Shady, Kallyn Knutson and forwards Stephanie Bandelin and Brooke Schramm, Esko never trailed down the stretch.
Off their depth-laden bench, Megan Reuer helped inside, while Bailey Mudek, Stephanie Miller and – most notably – Erika Shady, pressured the outside.
“We got a lot of quality minutes out of [Erika],” said Antonutti of the sophomore sparkplug defender. “She’s a smart player and knows her role for us.”
Although she’s not a starter like her older sister Marisa, Erika enjoys her role off the bench. In fact, she was so new to Tuesday’s game, that it was just her second time ever playing on the Romano Gymnasium floor.
“My first time was against Virginia, the Saturday before,” said the 5-foot-5 guard with a laugh. “I was a little nervous at first, but then I just got into it.”
By doing everything from deflecting passes, stealing the ball and pushing the tempo, Erika Shady created havoc everywhere. She even hit a pair of three-pointers, one in each half.
Erika said having that bench depth is nice. While the Eskomos flew around the gym, the Mustangs looked gassed.
“I don’t think we’re tired,” said Shady, one of many cross country, track, soccer and volleyball athletes on the basketball team. “We’ve been working really hard.”
“We try to wear the other team out,” added Brooke Schramm.
As Mora tired and fouled players out in the second, Trapp scored 14 of her game-best 16 points in the frame, while Reuer and Marisa Shady tallied nine apiece and Erika Shady, Bandelin and Schramm each added half a dozen.
“We’ve been down in games and found ways to come back before,” Schramm said. “So at halftime when we were down, we just said we were going to do this.”
However, with advancing come even bigger challenges. Sitting ahead of the Eskomos in the Section 7AA championship game at UMD is familiar Braham (28-1).
Having now met for all of the marbles for a third straight season, the Eskomos and Bombers will be at it again at 7 p.m. Thursday. And Antonutti knows it’s never a cake walk.
“Braham is arguably the best challenge you can have in the entire state,” he said of the team that has yet to lose in 2012. “They’re the defending state champs for a reason.”
To go along with the Bombers’ recent state crown comes Rebekah Dahlman. The electrifying junior could be considered the top player in the state by some, as she has well over 3,000 points in her career and exactly 1,028 this season already. Dahlman stands just 23 points shy of the state’s single-season record and 53 from the career mark.
“We’re excited to get another chance at them, though,” said Erika Shady, referring to when the Bombers beat the Eskomos 56-54 on Jan. 3. “It’ll be a challenge.”
Although Braham has defeated Esko this season and has eliminated them the past two seasons just one step from state, Schramm said she isn’t intimidated.
“I’m not afraid of them,” she said. “We’ve played them before, so I know that if we play our game, it’s going to be a good one.”
“We’ve prepared the entire season for Thursday because we want this one bad,” Trapp added. “It’s our turn to go to state. We’ll be ready to go and all fired up.”
Just like their defense.