There were 420 girls high school basketball teams in Minnesota this year. Eight won their final game. Thief River Falls was one of them. The Prowlers finished the 2015-16 season Saturday afternoon with a 56-42 victory over Becker in the third place game of the Class AAA state tournament.
It completed the transition from participant to winner at the state level for the Prowlers. They claimed their first section title a year ago but were the first team eliminated from the Class AAA state field in a one-and-done format.
This time around Thief River Falls guaranteed itself a three-game tournament by upsetting No. 1-seeded Hutchinson 61-59 in the Tuesday quarterfinals at Target Center.
The Prowlers lost a 55-42 Thursday semifinal at Williams Arena to Academy of Holy Angels – a team that went on to beat No 2-seeded Winona 51-43 in the title game.
Playing in the much smaller, but fan-filled Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia University in St. Paul, Thief River Falls led Becker almost the entire way in a third place game match-up of unseeded teams.
The only Becker lead of the day came on two Abbigail Morrell free throws that put the Bulldogs up 6-4 four minutes into the contest.
Moments later a Kylea Praska 3-pointer gave the Prowlers a lead they carried the rest of the way.
However, it remained close through the first half.
Thief River Falls executed a final-shot possession to perfection as Meleah Biermaier drove through a wide-open lane to score on a lay-up with 1.2 seconds on the clock for a 24-18 intermission difference.
The second half belonged to Thief River Falls. Tiahna Nicholson scored in traffic underneath and finished a fast break lay-up that quickly made it a double-digit spread at the outset of the second half. It ended up being a 10-1 Thief River Falls run that created a 34-19 scoreboard gap when Nicholson scored on a lob pass from Praska with 13:03 remaining.
It remained a double-digit gap the rest of the way. The biggest spread was 23 on a Praska trey from the corner for a 50-27 game with 5:57 to play.
"We opened up that lead in the second half and just kind of kept going,” noted Thief River Falls coach Jeff Loe.
Third place at state results in a trophy, individual medals and smiles all around. Losing produces a trophy and faces that show the disappointment of back-to-back setbacks after the excitement of an opening day victory.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” confirmed Loe when asked how it feels to finish with a win and a third place finish at state. “It’s a huge accomplishment.”
Thief River Falls ended the year 27-4. That’s a new school record for wins in a season, bettering last year’s 26-4 mark and pushing the Prowlers’ record to 125-18 over the past five winters.
A third place state tournament finish is no easy feat, acknowledged Loe. First, of course, is the caliber of the competition. Then comes a Class AAA schedule that is stretched over five days at three different sites. “It’s a grind,” he said. “It’s tough when you don’t win that semifinal game. At first, you really don’t want to be out here (playing for third). But we got an early lead, and that’s big in a game like this. It kept our spirits up. I thought we came out with more energy than they did, and their coach said the same thing.”
Nicholson finished the game with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double. Biermaier netted 13 and Jenna Tadych put together an 8-point, 8-rebound matinee.
A Becker team that ended the year 20-11 was led by senior guard Alexa Hanowski with 12 points.
Thief River Falls enjoyed a 55 percent 23-for-42 shooting performance, thanks in large part to an inside game that included 10-for-13 shooting by Nicholson and a 4-for-5 effort by Tadych.
Becker, meanwhile, struggled with a 33 percent 14-for-43 shooting figure.
The Prowlers were 8-for-11 at the free throw line; the Bulldogs went 9-for-14.
Thief River Falls took the rebound battle 29-25. Becker had one more turnover than the Prowlers, 13-12.
1 2 T
Thief River Falls 24 32 56
Becker 18 24 42
TRF – Kylea Praska 8, Kelsey Kainz 4, Meleah Biermaier 13, Jenna Tadych 8, Tiahna Nicholson 23.
Becker – Alexa Hanowski 12, Abbigail Morrell 8, Amanda Lindsey 6, Claire Thorn 4, Alex Johnson 4, Mackenzie Kramer 2, Rachel Vogl 3, Victoria Kolbinger 2, Madison Kerzman 1.