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UPDATED: Esko girls tame Wildcats, head to State semi-finals Friday

The Esko bench erupts in cheers after senior guard Erika Shady makes the go ahead three point shot in the Minnesota Class AA high school girls basketball quarterfinals Thursday at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Photos by Jules Ameel / For the Pine Journal

MINNEAPOLIS - Come March, Esko High School seemingly can't lose a basketball game.

Just four days after the boys claimed the small school's first-ever state basketball championship, the unseeded Eskomos girls team began its own journey at the state tournament with a shocking 39-35 upset of No. 3 New London-Spicer in Wednesday night's Class AA quarterfinal at the University of Minnesota's Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

Without a shot clock in Minnesota high school basketball, Esko (26-5) -- like their boys -- exhibited excellent patience and persistence, as they worked the ball around the floor, passing until the perfect shot presented itself, pestering the Wildcats (24-6)  and even leading their student section to cheers of "boring, boring."

The Eskomos, making their 10th overall state appearance and first since 2007, were anything but boring. Rather they were efficient, exploding to leads of 11-2, 13-4 and 16-4 in executing their game plan to a 'T.'

"It wasn't a stall, but we wanted to have long possessions and get a good shot at the end," Esko Coach Scott Antonutti said afterward. "The girls did it perfectly."

Although young, the Eskomos were cool, calm and collected when their once 21-17 halftime lead turned to a deficit of 33-29 on New London-Spicer standout Taylor Thundstedt's layup inside with five minutes remaining.

On the next possession, Esko's Ashley Bergerson banged in a 3-pointer atop the key. After a defensive stop, teammate Erika Shady sank a triple on top of the arc to put the Eskomos back on top at 35-33 with 2:04 left.

Shady's only score of the night forced a Wildcat timeout, and they never led again with Esko icing the game late at the free-throw line.

"It felt good," said Shady with a smile afterward. "I knew as soon as it left my hand that it was going in."

Esko now faces No. 2 Kenyon-Wanamingo (30-1) in the the state semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

Unaware afterward who they play next, Bergerson, who scored 12 points all on four 3-pointers to follow Ava Gonsorowski's team-high 14, admitted their simplistic game-plan will be evident.

"It depends on the game, but it's not very complex at all," she said of their grind-it-out, borderline ugly-looking, yet troublesome style.

That style had allowed just 39.6 points per game entering Wednesday and held that opponent to 35, while controlling the clock offensively.

"The held the ball, but they made their shots and put us in a hole," said iconic New London-Spicer Coach Mike Dreier, Minnesota's winningest girls coach with 816 victories over 36 seasons, including 15 state tournament trips. "Give [Esko] credit. They played well. They got it done."

Done with her stellar prep career now, Thunstedt, a North Dakota State University commit with a school-record 2,766 points and NBA-length shooting range, led all players with 22 points before breaking down into tears.

The Eskomos meanwhile, hope to hold off their tears for a couple more games, as their surreal stretch of wins keeps the small school smiling widely.

"I can't even explain it," Bergerson said of school this week.

In March alone, the Esko boys and girls combined are 11-0, including a pair of section titles, four state tournament wins and a state championship, with still a potential at one more.

"It's all falling into place," said Shady in an ecstatic locker room tunnel afterward. "It's just a great feeling."

Moments later the entire team started screaming excitedly before heading to their hotel suite for the weekend.

"It's a fantastic feeling," Antonutti said.

Esko - 21 - 18 - 39 New London-Spicer 17 - 18 - 35

Esko - Ava Gonsorowski 14, Ashley Bergerson 12, Judy Wagemaker 6, Erika Shady 3, Bailey Mudek 2, Kailee Kiminski 2. Totals: 13 7-13 39.

3-point goals - Bergerson 4, Shady, Gonsorowski.

New London-Spicer - Taylor Thunstedt 24, Olivia Setterberg 8, Ashlyn Geister 3. Totals: 14 4-5 35.

3-point goals - Thunstedt 3.