The saying goes, ‘Defense wins championships,’ and that is exactly how it happened for the Hancock girls basketball team this past week at the MSHSL Class A State Girls Basketball Tournament, in Minneapolis.
The Owls used their intense defense to topple over both Nevis in the state quarterfinal Thursday, and then again against Mayer Lutheran in the state semifinals Friday. The Owls could also thank their defense for keeping them within striking distance in the first half of the state championship game against Minneota Saturday, March 19, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
“Our defense is what keeps us in the game. We’ve said that all year long and we knew that if our offense wasn’t going to work that we needed to step up on defense,” senior Carlee Hanson said.
The Owls found themselves trailing for the first time in the entire state tournament. They were down 7-0 within the first three-and-a-half minutes against Minneota. The Vikings grew that lead to as much as 11 points in the first half.
“I think all of us had some nerves to start with, but once we settled down, especially on defense, we were able to make that run at the end of the half to get us back into the game,” Kaitlyn Staples said.
“Minneota came out strong in the first half with some good defense,” Misti Zempel said of the Vikings, who have won the state title in 2021 and 2019 and was a semifinalist in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament.
The Owls chipped away at the 11-point deficit and closed the half on a 12-6 run to head into halftime trailing 19-15. Minneota was held to just six points, and only two field goals, in the final 7:42 of the half.
“I am proud of the resiliency of this team,” Owl coach Tony Thielke said. “Credit to Minneota as they played a tough man to man defense and made us work for everything, but the girls battled to cut it to two possessions at the half.”
After shooting just 33 percent in the first half, Hancock opened the second half firing from deep and the shots started falling. The Owls hit three three-pointers to take their first lead, 23-21 with 14:32 left in regulation, and never relinquished that lead.
“We reminded the girls to do what got us here and to play within themselves. We had to get back to how we have been playing all season long,” Thielke said of the halftime speech in the locker room.
“He believed in us since we stepped out on the court today,” Carlee Hanson said of Thielke’s halftime pep talk. “He told us to play our game. It’s 0-0. It’s a new half. It’s our half.”
Their run was extended to 22-8 after Rylee Hanson had a lay-up at 7:12 to give Hancock a nine-point lead at 36-27. Two free throws with 44 seconds to play gave the Owls their largest lead at 11 points and the final score of 54-43.
“Give Hancock credit,” said Minneota coach Chad Johnston. “They’re a good team.”
The Owls were led by 16 points from Kaitlyn Rohloff, who was dubbed “airball” by the Minneota fans after airballing her a three-pointer within the first two minutes of the state championship game. She finished the game 5-of-11 from the floor after starting 2-of-7 in the first half.
Rylee Hanson surpassed 1,000 career points while finishing the game with 13. She joins her sister, Carlee, who joined the 1,000-point club in January.
Misti Zempel also finished in double figures with 11 points and also collected three steals. Carlee Hanson had eight points and game-high six rebounds and five assists.
For the full recap and tons of photos from Hancock at the MSHSL State Girls Basketball Tournament, visit our e-edition here.