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Panthers fall behind 13-0, come back to win WIAA tournament game

St. Croix Central's Nikki Brooks makes a strong drive to the basket against St. Croix Falls.1 / 2
St. Croix Central's Emily West (right) provided a spark in the comeback against St. Croix Falls with her assertive play at both ends of the court.2 / 2

It didn't look like the St. Croix Central girls were going to pull off an upset in the opening round of Division 3 tournament play last Tuesday when they fell behind St. Croix Falls 13-0. The Panthers did eventually snap out of their funk, charging back to defeat the Saints 42-36.

Two seniors who don't always draw the spotlight were critical in getting the Panthers back into the game. The comeback might never have started without Miranda Holzer. She snapped the Saints' 13-0 run to start the game. She hit three shots in the first half to give the offense its first positive steps.

"Miranda really got us jump started," said Central coach Luke Fritsche. "That was probably her best game of the season."

The other senior who sparked the comeback was Emily West. West came up with several steals in the second half, leading the Panthers' half-court trapping defense. She showed the same aggressiveness on offense, driving hard to the basket on several occasions.

One of the reasons the Panthers were able to turn the game around was their defense. In the first quarter the Saints used their massive height advantage to get shot after shot from under the basket. The Panthers amped up their defensive intensity after the first quarter and the Saints' scoring chances from in the paint were limited after that.

St. Croix Falls was still maintaining a healthy lead deep into the third quarter. That's when West was at her best. She scored and was fouled in the closing moments of the third quarter, cutting the SCF lead to 29-25. She scored the first points of the fourth quarter off a steal.

Senior Ashley Adkins then carried the Panthers into the lead with a salvo of three-point shots. She hit two straight three-pointers that gave the Panthers their first lead at 33-31. West then scored off another steal to boost the lead to four points. Another three-pointer, then two free throws, from Adkins in the final minutes put the game out of reach.

This was also the first game for Panther guard Nikki Brooks since suffering a concussion in the team's regular season finale. Brooks was a bit tentative in the first half. But in the second half she was flying around the court with her usual flair in leading the Panther defense.

Adkins finished with a game-high 14 points. West was next in scoring with nine points.

Loss at Amery

The win Tuesday moved the Panthers into the second round against the top seed in the Division 3 regional bracket, Amery. Amery has been nearly unstoppable in 2011 and the Panthers couldn't stop the Warriors either, losing on Friday 53-37.

This was Amery's 13th straight win.

The Panthers were able to stay close through the first quarter. Fritsche gave West the assignment of guarding Amery's Kelly Stewart. Stewart is headed to the University of South Dakota on a basketball scholarship next year and she's one of the most dominating offensive players in this part of the state.

Fritsche said West did well as the initial defender trying to stop Stewart, with the Panthers providing help whenever possible.

The Panthers were able to keep the game close through the first quarter, but Amery's lead crept up to 10 points at halftime. The Panthers put on a nice charge at the start of the third quarter to get back into contention.

"That's when Amery switched to a zone," Fritsche said. "That's where our run stopped."

Amery built up a double-digit lead in the rest of the third quarter, but the Panthers weren't done yet. Brooks hit three straight three-pointers early in the fourth quarter as the Panthers made their final gasp. That got the margin back to single digits briefly.

The Panther coaches anticipated that Stewart would be guarding Brooks in this game, so they moved sophomore Laura DeSmith to point guard.

"Laura was outstanding. She got to the basket and finished," Fritsche said.

Fritsche said this showed that DeSmith is ready to take over the point guard role for the team next season.

The Panthers graduate a talented senior class in Brooks, Adkins, West, Holzer and Jordan Risberg. Fritsche said the seniors have been outstanding leaders for the team. He said their graduation leaves opportunities for playing time for the younger girls who work hard in the off-season to improve their skills.