Milaca’s girls basketball team finished the regular season with a 6-19 record, losing seven of its final eight games.
It’s likely many thought Milaca wouldn’t be around very long in the Section 7AA Tournament.
Those folks were wrong. Dead wrong.
The Wolves surged into the semifinals with two impressive victories before losing to highly-touted Esko Tuesday night (March 5) at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
The Section 7AA title game matching Esko and unbeaten Braham is tonight (Thursday) at 7 at Minnesota-Duluth.
Milaca defeated Moose Lake 55-49 in the opening round of the tournament Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Moose Lake. The Rebels were the third seed in Sub-Section 1.
The Wolves followed that up by trimming Aitkin, the second seed in Sub-Section 1, 40-33 Saturday afternoon at Minnesota-Duluth. The Gobblers had defeated Milaca 53-25 at the Aitkin Holiday Tournament Dec. 27.
So, what’s been behind Milaca’s playoff surge?
“We play with such great enthusiasm and energy,” said first-year coach Dave Leom. “It’s been coming from everyone – it is an electric atmosphere.
“The players are having fun. They are a fun, competitive group.
“I can’t point to just one or two players. When we need a basket there are four or five who have stepped up. When we need a stop on defense, four or five have stepped up. The bench has been our sixth man as it is loud and enthusiastic and has given the ones on the court constant support.”
Leom felt there were three keys to the win over Aitkin, which finished the season 21-7.
“First, we had phenomenal defense inside,” he said. “We had some really good stops by Molly Banks and Danyell Keen, and also by Makayla Paggen, Julia Putz and Courtney Beaver who took turns defending the post area down the stretch.
“Second, our perimeter defense did not give Aitkin any really good looks in the first half. This helped make Aitkin feel uncomfortable shooting from the outside, so it tried to move back and shoot from even farther away. Ashley Cassens, Sarah Forker, Alex Ploeger and Clair Coffee just didn’t give Aitkin room to shoot.
“Third, we played with an extra player on the court – our bench!”
Milaca held the Gobblers’ offense in check in the first half as the Wolves moved to 24-10 halftime lead. Aitkin wasn’t able to overcome that margin in the second half.
Paggen, a sophomore forward, led the Wolves with 15 points as she made seven of eight free throws and four of nine shots from the field. She also had eight rebounds, seven off the defensive board.
Banks, a ninth-grade center, had 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots.
Cassens, a sophomore guard, added seven points, four rebounds and three assists. Putz, a senior guard, had six rebounds, a blocked shot and two points while Keen, a senior forward, had five rebounds, two blocked shots and two points.
Milaca’s defense held Aitkin to just one basket in 21 attempts from three-point range.
The Wolves trailed Moose Lake-Willow River 26-21 at halftime before outscoring the Rebels 34-23 in the second half.
“We came and played very well in the second half,” said Leom.
Banks made seven of 15 shots from the field and seven of nine free throws and totaled 21 points. She also had eight rebounds.
Paggen had 12 points and nine rebounds while Cassens and Ploeger each scored seven points.
The Wolves had a 43-33 edge in rebounds.
Moose Lake-Willow River finished with a 17-10 record while Milaca was 8-19 heading into the semifinals.