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Prep girls basketball: Karppinen’s free throws sink Virginia

Esko advanced to play Pierz in the Section 7AA semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hermantown.

Esko beats Virginia to advance in the Section 7AA tournament.
Esko's Jayden Karppinen drives to the basket past Virginia's Aleksia Tollefson (24) during the Eskomos' 47-43 win in the Section 7AA quarterfinals.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

HERMANTOWN — Esko’s Jayden Karppinen stepped to the free throw line four times in the final 30 seconds of a game against Virginia, but the senior didn’t shy from the moment.

The senior drained all four shots and twice extended a slim Eskomo lead to four points in Esko’s 47-43 win over the Blue Devils in the Section 7AA quarterfinal Wednesday in Hermantown.

“What was going through my mind right there was ‘OK, you really have to hit these right now because the whole team is depending on you right now,’” Karppinen said. I was like, ‘OK, go back to muscle memory, you’ve done this thousands of times in practice, so now’s the time to prove what you can do.”

Esko beats Virginia to advance in the Section 7AA tournament.
Esko's Jayden Karppinen shoots a free throw in the closing moments of the Eskomos' win over Virginia in the Section 7AA tournament. Karppinen was 4-for-4 in the final 30 seconds from the free throw line.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

Esko coach Scott Antonutti said he was confident with Karppinen heading to the line because she’s shooting better than 80% from the charity stripe this season.

“The moment doesn’t seem to get to her,” Antonutti said. “At the end of the game, when we’re in that kind of situation, she is a kid that we want to try and get the ball in her hands because she is so efficient from the free-throw line.”

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The game started with Esko jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead and a timeout by Virginia coach Spencer Aune.

Aune said he had his team start with a zone defense to help out against Esko’s Kyra Johnson on the inside. Inside play had hurt the Blue Devils in a 59-51 loss earlier in the season and coach Aune had hoped to limit the damage this time around.

“I thought we were a little stagnant, we weren’t getting after it like we normally do and maybe that’s on me for changing things up,” coach Aune said. “We went back to what we traditionally do and play full-court man and get after it and I thought that gave us some energy. I’ve told our girls all year and they know it — our defense turns our offense on when we’re playing hard. Then we’re not thinking as much on offense and I thought that’s how we got back into it.”

Esko beats Virginia to advance in the Section 7AA tournament.
Virginia's Rian Aune dribbles the basketball during the Blue Devils' loss to Esko in the Section 7AA tournament Wednesday in Hermantown.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

Virginia chipped away at the lead and finally went ahead late in the first half when Rian Aune pulled up for a 3-pointer from nearly half-court.

Esko pulled back in front for a 22-21 lead at halftime.

In the second half, the game was back-and-forth, with the Eskomos taking a small lead and Virginia battling back to tie several times.

Johnson proved to be a huge advantage for Esko, scoring 10 of her 12 points in the second half on passes into the paint or offensive rebounds.

Esko beats Virginia to advance in the Section 7AA tournament.
Esko's Kyra Johnson drives to the basket during the Section 7AA quarterfinal Wednesday in Hermantown.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

“Kyra has been a huge addition to our team — just having that big girl that can work the lane a lot,” Karppinen said. “She has definitely sprouted as an athlete and a basketball player the past couple of months and I think that generated a confidence boost in her.”

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Karppinen led all scorers with 23 points and Aune led Virginia with 15.

The Eskomos were able to hold off the Virginia shooters, a very dangerous bunch led by Aune, a Southwest Minnesota State recruit.

Coach Aune was proud of the way the team battled back and didn’t give up when Esko put together a small lead.

Esko beats Virginia to advance in the Section 7AA tournament.
Virginia's Emma Lamppa drives to the basket as Esko's Aila Gabel defends during a Section 7AA quarterfinal Wednesday in Hermantown.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

“That’s what this team has done their whole career — they just keep fighting,” he said. “They don’t think they’re out of anything, we can shoot the basketball. They know we can get hot and get moving and we never really did get hot tonight. Give credit to Esko for playing pretty tough on defense, but I love the way we battled. I love the way we took that punch to start and and we took that quick timeout and just said settle down.”

Esko (20-7) will play Pierz in the Section 7AA semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hermantown. Pierz beat Crosby-Ironton 59-52 Monday to advance.

Virginia finishes its last season before merging with Eveleth-Gilbert at 17-11.

Virginia 21-22—43

Esko 22-25—47

Virginia — Anna Fink 6, Rian Aune 15, Emma Lamppa 5, Kelsey Squires 6, Aleksia Tollefson 9, Janie Potts 2. Totals 17 0-0 43.

3-point goals — Aune 5, Lamppa, Squires 2 , Tollefson.

Esko — Jayden Karppinen 23, Aila Gabel 6, Avery Kuklinski 3, Emily Rengo 2, Kyra Johnson 12, Kaitlyn Adkins 1. Totals 15 14-20 47.

3-point goals — Karppinen, Gabel 2.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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