The final four and a half minutes belonged to the Mandan Braves.
In a back-and-forth battle where neither team ever managed to build a big advantage, one final push was enough to send fourth-ranked Mandan to a 62-60 victory over second-ranked St. Mary’s in the semifinals of the West Region girls basketball tournament on Friday at the Bismarck Event Center.
The Braves, trailing by five with 4:39 to go, finished the game on a 9-2 run to clinch a spot in next week’s state Class A tournament – and a shot at top-ranked Century in today’s tournament title game.
The Saints and Braves battled through a game with six ties and 13 lead changes, but St. Mary’s built a six-point second-half lead and held a five-point margin late.
Still, the Braves weren’t fazed.
“We’ve been down before and we knew that our shots weren’t dropping, so we knew if we kept playing our game the shots will drop,” said Mandan junior guard Kennedy Harris, who finished with 13 points and kicked-started the final Mandan drive with a pair of free throws and a three-point play that tied the game at 58-58 with 3:25 remaining.
“That’s exactly what we knew this game was going to be going into it,” Mandan coach Abby Thomas said. “It was going to be a matter of who hit shots. We’re so evenly matched with St. Mary’s. They’re just such a tough team for us and we battle so hard with them every single time we play them and we know it’s going to be that way if we meet up with them again in the future.
“They’re a tough, tough team and I’m proud of the way that our kids fought tonight. They just never quit.”
Megan Zander’s corner 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining gave the Braves the lead for good at 61-58.
“That’s her spot,” Harris said. “I drive and I kick it to the corner and I know she has it every time.”
“We’re kind of a shooting team and the second day of a tournament, sometimes the shots don’t fall like you want them to,” Thomas said. “So you’ve got to grit your teeth and get some stops defensively. Our girls just worked together and they just really fought hard.”
The Braves limited St Mary’s to one field goal over the final 4:30 and sealed the win by getting stops at the defensive end.
“Once we had the lead we knew we had to slow down and make sure we get our best shots,” Harris said. “Defensively our No. 1 goal was to deny the passes and not foul because we were in double bonus.”
Maria Mann hit a short jumper in the lane with 1:02 remaining to pull St. Mary’s within a point at 61-60.
Zander – who finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, five steals and a pair of blocked shots – hit one of two free throws with 26.2 seconds left to make it 62-60 and the defense fended off a final St. Mary’s possession to advance to the title game.
“We just battled all game,” Thomas said. “St. Mary’s has so many weapons that it’s tough for us. We have a tough time with their size especially. It helped us when their bigs got into foul trouble and we just said we’ve got to keep taking it at them. We’ve got to take advantage of the situation and we’ve got to keep pushing.”
Lakyn Darras had 12 of her 17 points in the second half as Mandan (18-5) picked up its sixth consecutive win.
The Braves shot just 32 percent (19 for 59) from the field, while St. Mary’s hit on 37.7 percent (23 for 61).
“What I love about our kids is they know they’re shooters, they’re going to keep shooting until it falls,” Thomas said. “Both Megan and Lakyn did a great job of that tonight. They just kept fighting through their misses that they had in the first half and just kept fighting until it worked.”
Mann led second-seeded St. Mary’s (18-5) with 12 points – getting 10 of them in the second half when Kaitlyn Wanner and Tonya Dvorak were battling foul trouble. Sydney Smith, Dvorak and Wanner each finished with eight for the Saints, who will play fifth-seeded Jamestown (14-9) today at 11 a.m. in a state qualifier.
The third-seeded Braves will square off with top-seeded, No. 1-ranked Century (22-1) in tonight’s 6 p.m. title game. It will mark the third consecutive year the two teams have met in the tournament final – with Mandan winning last year and Century prevailing in the 2016 final.
But both teams know their first goal has been taken care of – clinching a berth in the state tournament, set for March 8-10 in Fargo.
“It’s always a nice feeling to have that part of it taken care of,” Thomas said. “We’re excited to get back to the championship game. We had that goal in mind from the beginning of the year. We met up with them in the WDA championship last year and we’re excited to get that chance to do it again.
“We haven’t beaten Century yet this year, so we’d love another go at them. Now we get the opportunity and so we’re going to be ready to go tomorrow.”