FARGO — Lauren Ware couldn’t contain her excitement. She wasn’t alone.
The Century High standout led a furious second half rally as the Patriots held off Mandan 55-51 in the Class A state championship game Saturday night. The Sanford Health Athletic Complex in Fargo, nearly stuffed to the gills with Century and Mandan fans, had the building at a fever pitch.
“I’m so excited I almost passed out,” said Ware. “This is such a big moment for me and my teammates. I don’t even know what to say.”
Her play said plenty.
Ware piled up 24 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocked shots as the Patriots overcame a 30-23 halftime deficit to beat Mandan for the fourth time this season. Century won its first title since 2013 and fifth in school history, finishing with a record of 26-1.
It was a galling loss for the Braves, who pushed the No. 1-ranked Patriots to the brink. In all four matchups between the two teams, Mandan either was ahead or tied at halftime.
“It hurts because of how close we were,” said Mandan coach Abby Thomas. “I’m just so proud of our girls. I love how they played. I love how they represented our school and our community. We just came up a couple of points short.”
Down 39-31 after Janie Berger sank a 3-pointer for Mandan, Ware and the Patriots scored 18 of the next 21 points to surge into a 49-32 lead with 4 minutes and 30 seconds left.
“We just weren’t ourselves in the first half. We were playing rushed and without much composure/ Give credit to Mandan for the way they were defending us,” Century coach Ron Metz said. “When you play four times in a season, and twice in a week, there isn’t much we haven’t seen from each other.
“It was very tough for both teams. It was a highly competitive game with so much at stake.”
Down seven, the Braves didn’t back down. An 8-0 run, capped by two Megan Zander free throws, put Mandan back in front 50-49. Kennedy Harris made one free throw to tie it at 51-51, but the Braves were held without a basket for the final 3:25.
“It’s hard to beat a team four times in a year, especially a great team like Mandan,” Ware said. “The defense both teams were playing was incredible. It was just hard to score.”
Ware went 1 of 2 at the line to put Century up 52-51 before Lilly Keplin knocked down two in a row from the stripe for a 54-51 lead. Mandan misfired on its last three possessions and one more at the line from Ware all but sealed it.
“I just love this team so much. We all had to bring everything we had tonight,” Ware said. “Wow, what a game.”
Keplin finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s such a lovely group of young ladies to work with,” Metz said. “They worked so hard all year. I’m so happy for them.”
Zander, named the tournament MVP, led the Braves with 22 points, 18 coming in the first half. She also had 6 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots.
Mandan had runs of 8-0 and 9-0 in the first half, the second made it 30-21 late in the first half.
“I thought we were really aggressive and made a lot of good things happen,” Thomas said. “It’s not easy to score against Century, especially in the paint. I thought we moved the ball well and were able to get the shots we wanted instead of shots we had to take.”
Harris hit double figures with 10 points and led the Braves with 8 boards and 4 assists.
Both teams return strong rosters next season with many more meaningful Century-Mandan matchups sure to come.
“Every year we get a little closer. When we started out, we wanted to get to state. Then we wanted to win our first game at state. This year, our goal was to get even further, and we ended up putting ourselves in position to win a state championship against a great team,” Thomas said. “We’re already looking forward to next year.”