Panthers survive scoring drought for chance at regional championship

Al Christianson/Special to the MDN Rugby junior guard Maria Blessum (23) attempts a layup while being guarded by Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood eighth-grader Kylie Abernathey (3) in a Region 6 semifinal game Tuesday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium.

The Rugby Panthers couldn’t seem to find the basket in the first half of the Region 6 girls basketball semifinal game Tuesday against Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood. The Panthers defeated the Mavericks 40-32 and earned a spot in Thursday’s Region 6 championship game to fight for the chance to play in the state tournament.

Mavericks head coach Wayne Brackenbury confided that he knew his team of six players wouldn’t overtake the state ranked, District 11 No. 1-one-seeded Rugby Panthers, though he was proud of the effort put forth on Tuesday.

“We knew we weren’t going to beat them up by any stretch of the imagination, we just wanted to be close at the end,” he said. “Realistically, we achieved that.”

Previously in the season, the Mavericks visited the Panthers on Dec. 22, where they were served a defeat, 51-24. After a game like that, Brackenbury wanted his girls to be competitive, and that improvement showed in the score Tuesday.

The game was not looking good for the Rugby Panthers in the first half. The first 3 minutes of the game were scoreless for both teams. Each took turns taking shots at the basket with no luck.

Finally, Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood’s Leah Feland drew a foul going for a layup. She was able to make both of her free throws and put the Mavericks on the board.

Whitney Gronvold was the first successful Panther at the basket with a rebounded shot to tie up the score at 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the first quarter.

Feland drew another foul, only making one of her free throws, but it was enough to retake the lead. Mavericks eighth-grader Kylie Abernathy made a jumper to extend the lead further, ultimately leading the Panthers 5-2 with 2 minutes remaining.

Madison Uhlenkamp, a big name and presence for the Panthers, scored her first points of the game with 1:45 remaining in the first with a layup.

“We couldn’t make a shot,” Rugby head coach Jen Brossart said. “We couldn’t buy a basket and that happens. That’s basketball.”

The second quarter was much of the same, shots from Abernathy and Calli Brackenbury for the Mavericks put the team ahead 10-4 with six minutes remaining in the first half.

Rugby’s Anni Stier, Tristin Lunde and Madison Uhlenkamp did not shy away from trying to score but couldn’t seem to get their shots right to come back. Finally, with 4 minutes remaining, Stier was able to hit a long awaited long-range shot to begin the bounce back campaign for the Panthers.

Brackenbury, under the pressure of two defenders, made a shot under the basket to extend the lead 12-8 with two and a half minutes remaining to the half.

Lunde took the ball away from the Mavericks for a breakaway layup, with another coming from Maria Blessum with seconds remaining in the half to lead the Mavericks 13-12.

“I applaud our girls for sticking it out. They didn’t give up, they didn’t hang their heads, they weren’t ‘Poor me.’ They had to battle, and you have to battle through those games. That is the basketball nature,” Brossart said.

Rugby staked their claim as the favorite in the third quarter with shots from Karsyn Hager, Uhlenkamp and Stier pushing the team towards victory. By the halfway mark of the third quarter, the Panthers extended their lead 22-17.

Shots from Autumn Smith, Brackenbury and Feland kept the Mavericks in the game, but by the end of the third, the Panthers led 29-25.

Into the fourth quarter, the Panthers were able to lead by 10 points, 37-27, with four minutes remaining in the game.

The Mavericks kept fighting, not allowing a double-digit defeat and fighting their way back with a shot from Abernathy and a free throw from Smith to a final score of 40-32.

“Would we have liked to have won this game? Sure. And played in the championship? You bet,” Wayne Brackenbury said. “Would’ve been a great story, heading to the state tournament with six kids going but realistically sometimes you just fail at things in life.”

Though Brackenbury was proud of his team and the even spread of points scored among them, to win they would need at least one kid with double digits, according to Brackenbury. Coming from a losing season last year to making it to the Region 6 semifinals, Brackenbury was proud of the effort put forth from his girls this year and looks forward to their final hurrah Thursday.

Brossart credited the Panther’s bounce back win to senior leadership. Lunde was a big part of the scoring effort of the night, scoring 7 points, while Uhlenkamp was an attacker on defense with Gronvold holding strong under the basket.

As far as who stuck out to Brossart, she said the defense tonight is what really made the difference in the comeback. Steals from Stier and Blessum as well as the effort from Uhlenkamp was what kept the game going for the Panthers.

Stier led the Panthers in scoring Tuesday with 15 points, followed by Lunde and Uhlenkamp with seven each.

“It’s going to be a District 11 final,” Brossart said about Thursday’s championship game. “We take great pride in that in District 11 that we can make it to the championship game.”

The Mavericks will face Bottineau Thursday in the fight for third place at 6 p.m., while the Panthers will take on Velva at 7:30 p.m. for a ticket to the state tournament.

“We’re just happy to be moving on,” Brossart said.