BISMARCK - As the high notes of the national anthem blared through the arena speakers at the Bismarck Civic Center, Cassie Askvig's legs trembled. The Duttenhefer twins' knees twitched, as well. The rest of the Minot High girls basketball team swayed back and forth, painting a maroon-and-gold picture of an inexperienced team ridden with a bad case of nerves.
The last time the Majettes qualified for the Class A state tournament, in 2012, Askvig was just an eighth-grader. Two years ago, then-freshmen McKale and Sierra Duttenhefer - the only current roster members who played meaningful minutes that year - had a healthy set of knees.
Last season, when both of the Duttenhefers missed time due to ACL tears, Minot fell one win short of clinching a fourth straight state tournament berth. On Saturday, the Majettes shook off a set of nerves that lasted nearly the entire first half and ousted Mandan 52-45, punching their ticket to the big dance, which begins Thursday in Minot.
Minot High sophomore Cassie Askvig, right, embraces with teammates Jayden Moum and Sophie Bengson on Saturday at the Bismarck Civic Center after the Majettes advanced to the Class A state tournament.
"This is great for Majette basketball right now," Minot coach Todd Magnuson said. "These girls deserve it. They've worked so hard this year. I'm very proud of these kids. They dug deep and they wanted this one really bad."
After Minot (14-8) delivered perhaps its finest - and most exhausting - performance all year in a narrow semifinal loss Friday to two-time defending state champion Century, Magnuson didn't know how much his team would have left in the tank. Running on fumes, the Majettes relied on junior reserve Brooke Suko to provide a spark. She pulled down eight boards - including two in the final minute to seal the win - and swiped three of Minot's four steals.
"I thought Brooke Suko was the player of the game for us," Magnuson said. "Brooke didn't score a lot of points (7), but she did so many things well. She defended so well, she rebounded so well. This was a great game for Brooke."
As a whole, Minot proved dominant on the defensive end, holding Mandan (11-11) to 20.8 percent shooting and only 15 percent from downtown. Minot rebounded well on the defensive glass, limited the Braves to an 18.6 offensive-rebounding percentage. The Majettes finished with a 44-31 advantage on the boards.
"Our defense has kind of been our bread and butter all year," Magnuson said. "I think our defense was very good today. Any time you can hold a team under 50 points, I think that's a credit to your defensive team."
That stellar defensive play kept Minot around while its offense spun its wheels in mud during the first half. Whether it be nerves, confusion or poor decision-making, Mandan's 1-2-2 zone caused 14 Majette turnovers before halftime. Minot finished with 26 giveaways.
"The 1-2-2 wasn't just a straight zone, they actually matched up out of it really well," Magnuson said. "They fronted cutters, they did a good job of that. We just didn't recognize the open spots very well."
The Majettes trailed 26-19 with 2:11 left in the first half before pumping out an 8-0 run to end the half. McKale Duttenhefer, who had 10 of her 11 points before the break, capped the spurt with a 3-pointer from the right wing with five seconds left. That spotted Minot a 27-26 halftime lead and all the momentum it needed.
"It was an exciting feeling knowing that we were up at half and just needed to come out and play well in the second half," Suko said.
Out of the break, Sierra Duttenhefer lofted in a floater to expand the buffer to three points. After that, the 6-foot-1 Askvig took over, recording her team's next 12 points. In the second half, Askvig made 6 of 7 shots, including all three from deep, to tally 15 of her game-high 18. Her treys extended Mandan's zone, opening up driving lanes for teammates the rest of the half.
"We lost track of Askvig," Mandan coach Len Stanley said. "That was a matchup zone we played. When they go four-out and Askvig steps out to the corner, you're asking a post to go into foreign waters. You can't let her play 'Horse.' All in all, you have to tip your hat to Askvig."
Minot led the entire second half and held a five-to-seven-point lead over the final 9:42. Junior guard Sophie Bengson, Suko and Sierra Duttenhefer went 1-for-5 from the charity stripe in the final minute, giving Mandan four chances to cut the lead to one possession. The Braves came up empty all four times.
Bengson - often the shortest player on the court - had a game-high 11 rebounds to go with six points.
Senior guard McKayla Howling Wolf led the Braves with 15 points on 6-of-22 shooting, including 1-for-11 from downtown. Freshman Mackensi Higlin posted all 10 of her points in the first half.
The Majettes secured the West Region No. 3 seed and will play the East Region's second seed, West Fargo, at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium.
"It feels really important to go to state in our hometown and that we can have another week of practice and stay together as a team," Suko said.
Added guard Jayden Moum, Minot's lone senior: "I just knew it was my last chance and my team knew it, too. We just wanted it so bad. I couldn't be happier to get there."
Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.