In the movie business, a blockbuster production is often followed by a sequel. The girls high school basketball teams from Thief River Falls and Alexandria followed suit Thursday when they met for the second straight year in the Section 8AAA tournament finals. And Prowlers vs. Cardinals Part II was every bit as good as the original – at least from the Thief River Falls standpoint.
The Prowlers held off the Cardinals 43-42 in the 2015 title game at St. John’s University to earn their first-ever state tournament trip. The scene shifted to Minnesota State University Moorhead for the 2016 rematch. And to add a bit more suspense, this one went into overtime. But the outcome was the same as Thief River Falls prevailed 57-55 in another cardiac-challenging battle that went down to the final horn.
Thief River Falls led virtually the entire game, but never by a comfortable margin.
Biggest spread in the first half was at 20-14 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Thief River Falls guards Meleah Biermaier and Kylea Praska.
Alexandria came back, however, to take its only pre-intermission lead when reserve guard Kara Thomson dropped a trey from the side for a 24-23 edge with 3:01 on the clock.
Another three by Praska put the advantage back on the Thief River Falls side of the Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse scoreboard and a perfectly-executed final possession had the Prowlers up 29-24 at the break. Stalling for a last shot, the winners got the ball to Tiahna Nicholson under the basket and the 6-1 sophomore center came through by converting on a three-point play with 1.5 seconds showing.
Thief River Falls senior center Jenna Tadych opened the second half with a short jumper from the middle of the lane for a 31-24 difference – the largest point spread of the night.
Alexandria didn’t go away. An open-look 3-pointer from the wing by Thomson (again) pulled the Cardinals into a 42-42 tie with 7:04 remaining.
It was a tense battle the rest of the way. “We knew it would be,” said Thief River Falls coach Jeff Loe. “I wouldn’t have imagined it any other way. Both teams played good defense. And we both shot the ball okay. It just came down to a couple of breaks.”
Alexandria’s second lead of the game came on a pair of free throws by junior guard Kendall Kohler that put her team up 47-46 with 53.1 seconds to play in regulation time.
Sophomore forward Courtney Gould, another very effective player off the bench, made one of two free throws to nudge the Cardinals’ lead to 48-46 with just 12.8 seconds left.
That was followed by a hurried Thief River Falls trip down the court. Like she did at the close of the first half, Nicholson came through again by scoring off a feed underneath with 4.7 seconds remaining for the 48-48 regulation time tie.
Nicholson finished the game with a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds.
“Tiahna was a force under the basket,” said Loe. “She had a great game.”
Nicholson won the tip to start the four-minute overtime and promptly put herself in position to score on another inside play for a lead the Prowlers held the rest of the way.
Alexandria turned the ball over on its first two overtime possessions and when Tadych scored off a lob pass from Nicholson it was a 52-48 game with 2:47 to play.
Rest of the points on both sides came at the free throw line.
Praska made two for a 54-42 advantage with 49.4 seconds left. Kohler matched that nine seconds later.
Back at the line with 30.6 seconds on the board, Praska made one of two foul shots for a 55-50 game, but junior guard Macy Hatlestad came through with a clutch 3-pointer to pull Alexandria back within 55-53 with 21 seconds still to play.
Biermaier was fouled while advancing the ball against an aggressive Alexandria press and she hit two free throws to push the Prowlers’ lead to 57-53 with 17.5 seconds remaining.
Two more Gould free throws accounted for the 57-55 final. That came with 7.8 seconds flashing.
A pair of Thief River Falls misses at the line and an Alexandria rebound gave the Cardinals one more chance, but the clock hit zero before a rushed – and errant – 3-pointer left the shooter’s hands.
While Nicholson was the Prowlers’ only double figure scorer, Biermaier had a 9-point, 9-assist game; Praska contributed 9 points; and Tadych came through with 8 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks.
A balance attack for an Alexandria team that has just one senior on its roster and starts four juniors and a sophomore featured Kohler with 14 points, Hatlestad 12 and Tomson 11.
Thief River Falls was 21-for-46 from the field (46 percent). The Prowlers struggled through an 11-for-21 free throw night, but did score five of their nine overtime points at the foul line.
Alexandria went 18-for-40 from the floor (45 percent) and 14-for-21 at the line.
Thief River Falls’ size advantage inside accounted for a 34-23 rebound advantage.
The Prowlers topped the turnover figures 15-10.
“I thought we really battled on defense,” offered Loe. “We worked hard.”
It was a 22-7 season for the Cardinals, the tournament’s top seed. The second-seeded Prowlers head to the Class AAA state tournament with a 25-3 record.
1 2 ot T
Thief River Falls 29 19 9 57
Alexandria 24 24 7 55
TRF – Kylea Praska 9, Kelsey Kainz 3, Meleah Biermaier 9, Jenna Tadych 8, Tiahna Nicholson 24, Allison Okeson 4.
Alexandria – Emma Ziegler 2, Kendall Kohler 14, Macy Hatlestad 12, Emma Schmidt 2, Kayla Feldhake 9, Kara Thomson 11, Courtney Gould 5.