Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson had it right: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
That time-tested axiom could not be more true for the Eden Prairie girls basketball team, whose season-long gauntlet through the Lake Conference schedule has paid dividends in the state tournament.
The No. 3 seed Eagles dispatched Centennial, a random draw, with a dominant 78-57 victory in the quarterfinal round on Wednesday at Williams Arena.
Eden Prairie is one of three Lake Conference teams advancing to the semifinals on Thursday.
“The Lake Conference prepares you for the big stage.” Eden Prairie head coach Ellen Wiese said. “Because there’s nothing that we haven’t faced to this point.
“We might not win every game, but it’s not going to be because we’re unprepared for the big stage. Because we got to do it every day, or every night in the Lake Conference.”
The Eagles move on to face conference foe St. Michael-Albertville, the No. 2 seed, in the semifinals tonight at the Barn.
“The whole team played extremely well,” Wiese said. “Like we’ve done all year, our defense is extraordinary. We rebounded really well. And then today, we shot really well.”
The Eagles shot 50 percent from three-point range, hitting nine of 18. The Eagles were 55 percent from the inside the arc, seemingly undaunted by the unique sightlines on the raised floor at Williams.
“It’s different. It feels way bigger.” Eagles senior point guard and captain Molly Lenz said. “Obviously, it’s kind of different because the fans are so far away. Shooting-wise, it’s different because there’s nothing right behind the backboard, which I honestly think positively affected us with the way we shot tonight.
“It just feels like a bigger stage. I’d say.”
The Eagles certainly didn’t shrink from the spotlight, jumping out to a 41-22 halftime lead. Sophomore guard Ella Hardwick came off the bench to hit a pair of threes on her way to a team-high ten points in the first half.
“When I hit that first three, it just clicked for me and I just kept it going and just felt good,” Hardwick said. “But my teammates, they were really hyping me up a lot during the game, and it just made me feel more confident in myself shooting more.”
Hardwick’s confidence was on full display with 8:32 remaining in the first half, when she had possession in the offensive zone, only to have a Centennial player steal the ball. Without missing a beat, Hardwick stole the ball right back, went in for the layup, coming away with two points while drawing the foul.
“I was able to hit all the shots I took,” she said. “I really enjoyed the environment. It felt great to be in the big gym.”
Hardwick and senior guard Annika Anderson both finished with a team-high twelve points. The Eagles had four players in double figures, including Lenz and sophomore Rae Ehrman with ten each.
“I think we knew [playing in the Barn]was going to be a little bit different,” Anderson said. “So we tried to mimic it in our shoot-around, shooting on a side basket with not much behind it and I think it helped us out.”
The Eagles, known for their dominance in the defensive zone, put together a complete performance in the quarterfinal matchup, forcing 20 Centennial turnovers and owning the boards with 32 rebounds, eight from senior captain Kylie Bamlett.
“Eden Prairie is very tenacious on defense, rebounding,” Centennial head coach Jamie Sobolik said. “Our key was going to be to keep them off the boards, trying to contest shots, they’re a lot quicker than you can tell on video.
“So they took us out of a lot of what we wanted to do on offense. We didn’t get a lot of shots that we normally get.”
Sobolik pointed out that teams coming from the high-powered Lake Conference are difficult to beat on the state tournament stage.
“We didn’t have it and that’s the level we want to be at,” he said. “That’s our goal is to be able to compete with those Lake Conference teams. And they’re great. I mean, their talent is very high.”
Centennial’s leading scorer, Junior Marisa Frost, led all scorers with 21 points and was effective in the early going defending Lenz, who took a rare break from the floor in the first half.
“I started rough with the fouls,” Lenz said. “And then I had a few dumb turnovers, too. I think it was just kind of jittery at the beginning. But hopefully I got all that out today. That won’t be an issue tomorrow.”
Lenz reentered the game to guide the Eagles offense, which pulled further away in the second half.
The Eagles were up by 29 with 12:41 remaining when Lenz, still battling, dove for a ball near the scorers table, hitting the floor in pursuit of possession.
Lenz left the game shortly after that play, along with the entire starting five of Anderson, Bamlett, senior Ashley Fritz and sophomore Tori Schlagel. A well-earned reprieve before the semifinal game 24 hours away, while giving reserve players a chance to enjoy playing on the raised floor at the Barn.
“Yeah, it was dominant,” Wiese said. “We were pretty dominant in the section final against Chaska. We didn’t shoot as well, but I felt like we were just as dominant in terms of putting the team on their heels right away.”
The Eagles next opponent, St. Michael-Albertville, had no trouble with Eagan in their quarterfinal matchup, winning 80-60.
The Knights (27-3) defeated the Eagles (21-9) twice by narrow margins earlier this season. In their first meeting, Eden Prairie was without the services of Bamlett, the team’s leading defender and rebounder.
The stakes will be higher under the bright lights in the Barn, as two Lake Conference powers clash, with the winner headed to the state finals.
“Oh, I’m so excited. I think we definitely have a great shot to win it,” Lenz said. “A lot of us have friends on the other team. So I think that’ll be fun to play against them.”
Lenz regards the two earlier losses to STMA as informative scouting reports for the semifinal game which matters far more than the previous two for obvious reasons.
“We know each other really well,” she said. “So I think those are the games where you really see who’s the better team because you know their sets; they know our sets. It’s just gonna come down to who can put the ball in the hoop more.”
Opening tip from Williams Arena is set for 8 p.m. on Thursday. For more information on the game visit the MSHSL website.
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