MINNEAPOLIS -- When the final buzzer sounded, New Prague's girls' basketball players rushed to midcourt in celebration. In the background, the Worthington Trojans, many in tears, trudged dejectedly off the Williams Arena floor.
Worthington's season came to a sudden and disheartening end Wednesday morning in a 54-50 loss to top-seeded New Prague in the quarterfinals of the Class AAA tournament. After losing just two games during the regular season, going undefeated in the Southwest Conference and cruising to the Section 2AAA championship, Worthington submitted one of its worst shooting performances of the season Wednesday and failed on a furious comeback bid.
New Prague held Worthington to just 28.1 percent shooting from the field (18-of-64) and 34.8 percent (8-of-23) from beyond the arc.
"The big thing tonight is we didn't make shots when we had the chance," Worthington coach Eric Lindner said. "They always had the momentum the whole game."
Despite Worthington's poor shooting, it never was out of the game. New Prague took a nine-point lead -- its largest of the game -- with 15:29 remaining, but Worthington cut the deficit to three points or fewer on eight different occasions, and it managed to tie the score twice in the final 4:15.
But Worthington couldn't finish any of its comeback attempts, failing to take a lead in the second half, and New Prague consistently answered with big shots to keep the advantage and momentum on its side.
New Prague's most critical answer came from an unlikely source.
Kayla Vander Veen capped a 12-4 Worthington run with a 3-pointer from the corner to tie the score at 48-48 with 4:15 remaining. On New Prague's ensuing possession, Amanda Wagner drove down the baseline, bumped into a Worthington defender and pulled the trigger on a difficult shot that had little arc. The ball rattled around the rim and fell through the net, giving New Prague a two-point advantage.
Wagner, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, was 1-for-5 from the field until that point.
"That was a big shot for them, and you have to give (Wagner) credit; she made it," Lindner said. "From that point on, we were always fighting from behind. You can only do that for so long until that clock runs out, and we just didn't have enough time to get another comeback."
Worthington had numerous opportunities in the final three minutes.
Worthington turned the ball over on its next possession but forced a New Prague turnover on a 10-second violation. Worthington junior guard Kaitlin Gerber blew past her defender on a drive, forcing New Prague's center to help, and dropped a pass to Martha Alwal, who converted on the easy bucket to tie the score at 50-50 with 2:49 remaining.
Wagner missed a 3-pointer on the other end, but Worthington junior guard Gabby Boever failed to convert on a tough layup attempt. Wagner was fouled while pulling down the rebound and missed both attempts from the free-throw line, but Worthington senior guard Holli Aggen failed to convert on a drive at the other end.
Moments later, Vander Veen recorded a steal near midcourt, raced toward the arc and pulled up for a quick 3-pointer. The junior guard missed badly, and New Prague's Maggie Weiers converted on a post move on the other end to put New Prague up by two points with 1:28 remaining.
Weiers then stripped the ball from Boever on a drive to the hoop, forcing a Worthington turnover, and New Prague junior guard Rena Kneeland followed with two free throws to make it a four-point game.
Vander Veen and Boever each missed good looks from beyond the arc on Worthington's next offensive trip. And, after Kneeland missed the front end of a one-and-one with 25 seconds remaining, Gerber missed a driving layup, and Alwal failed to convert on the putback attempt, sealing Worthington's second first-round loss to a top-seeded team at the state tournament in the past three years.
"You would be upset if you didn't compete or play with them, but I felt like we competed the whole game," Lindner said. "The first half was a little sluggish, but we dug ourselves out. We were in position. If (Vander Veen) hits that 3 with about two and a half minutes left, it would be a different story. It's just that they always kept the momentum."
Worthington, which missed its last seven attempts from the field and went 9-for-35 shooting (25.7 percent) in the second half, went 9-for-29 from the field (31 percent) and 3-for-11 from beyond the arc (27.3 percent) in the first half. Worthington missed its first five attempts from the field and its first two attempts from the free-throw line in a game-opening scoring drought that lasted 3:49.
A deep 3-pointer by Boever gave Worthington its first and only lead of the game, 13-12, with 11:40 remaining in the first half, but the advantage lasted just 24 seconds.
New Prague, which utilized a swarming, trapping defense, was effective in slowing down Worthington's top three scorers. Aggen, Boever and Gerber combined to shoot 10 of 39 from the field and 3 of 16 from beyond the arc. Boever scored 16 points on 5-of-20 shooting from the field and 3-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc; Gerber scored two points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field (0-of-4 in the second half) and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc; and Aggen, playing in her final high school basketball game, scored nine points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field and 0-of-5 shooting from 3-point range.
The extra attention paid to Aggen, Boever and Gerber opened things up for Vander Veen, who, along with Alwal, managed to keep Worthington in the game.
Vander Veen scored a game-high 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. She connected on 4 of 6 attempts from 3-point range in the second half.
Alwal, who did much of her damage on the defensive end, flirted with a triple-double. The sophomore center had 20 rebounds -- nine offensive -- and 11 blocks, including nine in the second half, but she scored just six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Worthington, which played without junior forward Rachel Malmgren, who suffered a season-ending knee injury March 12 in the Section 2AAA championship game against Willmar, used a six-player rotation. Kristen Andersen, a freshman center, played 16 minutes off the bench and missed her only attempt from the field.
New Prague, which also used a six-player rotation, only received four points from its bench. Hannah Strop, a 6-foot-1 junior center, scored 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 2-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc to lead New Prague, which shot 36.2 percent from the field (21 of 58) and 42.9 percent (3 of 7) from 3-point range. Weiers added 13 points on 6-of-22 shooting, and Kneeland and Wagner each added seven points.
Worthington, which was outrebounded 49-44, connected on 6 of 11 free throws. New Prague made 9 of 18.
"They're disappointed, like any team should be," Lindner said, referring to his players. "You just have to hang your hat on the fact that you did a good job and try to get here next year."
Worthington 25 25 -- 50
New Prague 32 22 -- 54
WHS (3FG-2FG-FT-TP): Aggen 0-4-1-9, G. Boever 3-2-3-16, K. Gerber 0-1-0-2, Alwal 0-3-0-6, Vander Veen 5-0-2-17. Totals: 8-10-6-50.
NPHS (3FG-2FG-FT-TP): Wagner 0-2-3-7, Kneeland 1-1-2-7, Rynda 0-3-0-6, Weiers 0-6-1-13, Strop 2-4-3-17, Gill 0-2-0-4. Totals 3-21-9-54.