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Combined Cardinal efforts carry team to state

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GIRLS BASKETBALL A STATE TOURNAMENT

WHO: Cromwell-Wright (25-4) vs. Red Lake (24-2)

WHAT: Class A Quarterfinal

WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday, March 16

WHERE: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis

OUTLOOK: The Cardinals and Warriors will surely stretch the floor in this quarterfinal. Both Cromwell-Wright (80.2) and Red Lake (82.8) are two of Class A’s top-three scoring teams. The Warriors have won 15 straight, including all section games by 15 points or more. The Cardinals are carried by seniors Chelsea Swatek, Bailey Gronner and junior Teana Hakamaki — who combine for more than 4,300 points. Swatek is the school’s all-time leading scorer with more than 1,900 to her name. And their 314 three-pointers as a team this winter is approaching a state record within a single season.

FOLLOW THE ACTION: on Twitter @tylerkorby, or tune in to WKLK-FM 96.5

5A GIRLS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP

*****

In a way, it was hard to tell which first half was better.

After a relatively disappointing Section 5A quarterfinal performance in a win over Verndale, Cromwell-Wright girls basketball coach Jeff Gronner challenged his team to play better defensively. They responded by throttling Menahga in the semifinals but may have been even better in last Friday's section finals.

They held Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (BBE) to only 13 first-half points on Friday night, leading by 32 at the break. Then they breezed to a 63-37 win that has the Cardinals heading to state for the second season in a row.

The Cardinals buried their opponents under 13 three-pointers, including five from Bailey Gronner, and BBE never had a chance.

"Both those first halves were pretty good," coach Jeff Gronner admitted. "They were both very well-performed defensive halves by us. But I'm more proud of the Menahga game because they were a better offensive team. Still, holding a team to 13 points in a half in a section championship game is an impressive feat."

The players seem to have adjusted to their coach's challenge well.

"We knew defensively BBE was solid but they didn't have a standout offensive player," Gronner added. "We played straight, man-up defense and throttled them."

Bailey Gronner had 19 points, Taya Hakamaki added 17, Shaily Hakamaki scored 12 and Chelsea Swatek 11 to lead a balanced attack for the Cardinals (25-4). Hailey Braegleman scored 13 points to lead BBE, which trailed Cromwell 45-13 at halftime.

The three-point shooting helped. Cromwell was so good from the floor that it only took five free-throw attempts in the entire game, hitting four.

"I would say we shoot a lot of three-pointers and hit a lot of them, but if they aren't falling we can find scoring other ways," Gronner said. "We have been hitting them in the playoffs, though."

The key has been the coach's daughter — at least in the post-season.

"Bailey didn’t have a very good game against Verndale,” Jeff Gronner said. "But the last two games she has been lights out. All the girls have the capability of doing that. Bailey has piled up the threes, but Chelsea, Taya, Teana, they can all do it."

That puts the Cardinals into Thursday night's 5 p.m. state quarterfinals against Red Lake (24-2) at Mariucci Arena, a team similar to Cromwell in many respects.

"They play a wide-open style of ball, they run the floor and push," Gronner said. "They like the long outlet passes and shoot lots of threes. We like that too but a more frantic pace probably favors them so we need to see how this goes."

The Warriors beat Sacred Heart 67-52 in the Section 8A final and have a high score of 108 points this season. They beat Laporte 106-48 Feb. 3.

With a running team like Red Lake, Gronner knows defense in transition will be vital.

"It's going to be huge," he said. "Against the really good teams that push the ball, we have struggled with transition defense at times. We have focused on that and hopefully it will be good for Thursday."

Offensively, taking care of the ball and limiting transition opportunities is also vital.

"We can't turn the ball over," he said. "We need to get shots up and in. Last year at state we had some nerves and made some unforced turnovers we don't usually make. If we can get the shots up and take care of the ball, I like our chances."

"Just the fact that we're down in the Twin Cities will hopefully help," he added. "I look for the girls to raise their game. They know what to expect since they have been down there before. But every team at state is there for a reason. It should be a fun challenge."

All Minnesota state tournament quarterfinal games will be live-streamed online at mnprepspotlight.tv.

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