No one left the main gymnasium at Eden Prairie High School on Saturday following the Eagles’ scrappy 50-36 victory over Prior Lake in the Section 2AAAA semifinals of the girls basketball playoffs.
Many of the Eden Prairie faithful remained in the gym to watch another game on the jumbotron, which was streaming the remaining four minutes of the Minnetonka vs. Chaska semifinal.
The Eagles, who were gathered in a nearby classroom to watch the game play out, were eager to learn who their opponent would be in the section finals.
The game they had just played had been a struggle for much of the afternoon. Eden Prairie had difficulty hitting on uncontested shots, shooting 30 percent from the field while going 12-of-35 inside the arc and 3-of-15 from three-point range.
“I don’t know what that was all about,” Eagles head coach Ellen Wiese said. “I have no idea. I don’t think we were nervous. I don’t know why we missed so many easy shots but you know the great thing is our defense is phenomenal.”
The Eagles placed their focus on Lakers junior center/forward CeeCee McNair, whom they limited to just four points in the game.
“I thought Kylie [Bamlett] and then Anna [Jaeger] did a phenomenal job fronting her,” Wiese said. “And we got a lot of turnovers when they were trying to force it into her and I thought it was very hard to score against us. And so, even though we weren’t making shots we knew we could get stops.”
Bamlett, a senior captain, led the Eagles on the boards as well, pulling down 12 rebounds, eight in the defensive zone, as the Eagles held Prior Lake to just 19 points in the first half.
“I like a good challenge and number 45 (McNair) was definitely a challenge,” Bamlett said. “And so, the last few days I’ve been prepping for that; how to guard her rebounding, defense, offense, on both sides of the court. So I’m glad I was able to execute on that.”
The lead changed hands six times through a four-minute stretch midway through the first half.
Senior guard Annika Anderson led the Eagles with seven first-half points, including a nifty sky hook that opened the scoring and a three-pointer just before the half.
“I feel like we had a little bit of a rocky start,” Anderson said. “We had to find our team energy, but I think once we figured it out, we went on a roll and ran away with it, which is great.”
The Eagles held a 28-19 lead at the half and entered the second half determined to grind out a victory. Anderson’s three-pointer with 7:40 to play gave Eden Prairie a 12-point lead as part of a 15-6 run close out the game. She finished with a game-high 14 points.
“I think I just really had to be confident in myself,” Anderson said. “I had to trust my shots and also be willing to trust my teammates and just work as a team.”
Eagles seniors Molly Lenz and Ashley Fritz each put up eight points; sophomores Tori Schlagel and Vanessa Jordan had six, while fellow sophomore Ella Hardwick scored four with some tough play down low.
Wiese credits the win to preparation, particularly in the defensive zone, where the Eagles had 22 rebounds, 13 steals and three blocked shots in the victory.
“I watched a ton of film so we knew the sets they were going to run,” Wiese said. “The kids were really, really prepared. Nothing happened today that surprised them. And all they were calling out which inbounds plays Prior Lake was running, so they were really locked in on that game plan and the scout.They were terrific.”
Also terrific was senior captain Lenz, who never left the game – as is customary. The point guard is a constant for the Eden Prairie offense, instilling a confidence and sense of order, particularly in a scrappy game like the Eagles saw on Saturday.
“She’s just so poised. So in control. So smart,” Wiese said. “She knows exactly what we should be running. She never gets rattled and that really feeds with the kids. Nobody’s gonna get rattled at all, because we’ve got Molly out there.”
When asked about her “iron woman” role, Lenz laughs and shrugs. She’s grown accustomed to being a consistent presence from start to finish.
“I’ve been playing point guard my whole life,” she said after the Eagles’ quarterfinal win over Edina. “It helps our offense run better, especially when they’re pressing and doing zone and stuff. I think it helps just control the game for that aspect of it.”
After watching the finish of the Minnetonka/Chaska semifinal, Eagles players emerged from the classroom and spilled out into the gymnasium to meet parents and friends.
Top-seed Chaska had outlasted a late surge by the Skippers, coming away with a 57-55 win to advance to the finals, where they will host Eden Prairie on Friday night.
“We knew that if Minnetonka won, we’d have another chance to play on our home court,” Bamlett said. “Chaska pulled out the win barely, but Ellen said that in the seven years that she’s been here, they’ve gone to three section finals, and the only one they won was at Chaska. So yeah, we’re hoping to use that as some momentum and we know we can beat them.”
At the Park Center Holiday Tournament in December, Chaska (27-1) came away with a 72-63 win over Eden Prairie (19-9). They’ll be facing an Eagles team that has come a long way in the past four months, most notably overcoming the loss of senior standout Savanna Jones before the season even began.
Eden Prairie also played through a seven-game stretch in January without an injured Bamlett, going 4-3 and reaching the other side battle-tested for a March run.
“I think we’re a much better team than we were then,” Wiese said, reflecting on the December meeting with Chaska. “To reach the section final without Savanna for the whole season is just phenomenal for this team. I don’t think anybody really put us there.
“And so, we’ve got to be happy about what we did today. We really should celebrate it and then we’ll get back to work on Monday.”
Tip-off for the Section 2AAAA championship between the No. 2 seed Eagles and the top-seed Hawks is set for 7 p.m. on Friday at Chaska High School.
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