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GIRLS' BASKETBALL: Worthington advances to state tournament with victory

Matt Huss/Daily Globe Worthington's Holli Aggen cuts down the net in celebration after the Trojans defeated Willmar 54-31 on Thursday in the Section 2AAA championship game at Taylor Center in Mankato.

MANKATO -- It definitely wasn't pretty, but it certainly was sweet.

Worthington's girls' basketball team overcame a sluggish start Thursday night, using its defense and a big second half from Kaitlin Gerber to earn a 54-31 victory over Willmar in the Section 2AAA championship game at Taylor Center on the campus of Minnesota State-Mankato.

Worthington will advance to the Class AAA state tournament, which begins Wednesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Trojans will face an opponent yet to be determined.

"It's an honor for these kids to be able to represent our section, and any time you get to a state tournament, that makes memories for kids," Worthington coach Eric Lindner said. "I'm sure this is something the kids will never forget."

The Trojans had a start Thursday night they'd like to forget.

Worthington missed 10 of its first 12 shots from the field, committed four turnovers and scored just four points in the first 8:20 of the first half until Gabby Boever drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner.

"Nothing was falling, and I was getting worried," Gerber said.

It could have been worse. Willmar was proof.

The Cardinals went 0-for-5 from the field, committed eight turnovers and failed to score a point in the first 8:49. But they still were in the game. Senior guard Kelsey Evans broke the scoring drought with a driving layup to bring Willmar to within 7-2.

"(The Cardinals) were trying to make every position count, and they were trying to take a minute to a minute and a half off the clock each possession; they didn't want to run with us," Lindner said. "The thing I liked about what we did tonight is we didn't fall into that trap of committing dumb fouls when they were trying to be patient. We stayed with our defense."

Rachel Malmgren recorded a steal and followed with a layup to give the Trojans a 9-2 lead, but Willmar answered with an 8-3 run to make it 12-10 with 6:01 remaining. The Cardinals then committed nine turnovers, missed their final five shots and went scoreless until halftime.

Willmar, which trailed 19-10 at the intermission, shot 25 percent (5 of 20) from the field, missed all three 3-pointers, committed 19 turnovers and didn't attempt a free throw in the first half. The Cardinals played the final 7:51 without their star senior, 5-foot-9 guard Kelsey Evans, who sat after picking up her third foul.

The Trojans, who were visibly frustrated, shot 25 percent (6 of 24) from the field, went 1-for-5 from beyond the arc, committed 10 turnovers and made 6 of 8 free throws in the first 18 minutes.

"I just think it was more of not getting done what they usually get done," Lindner said, in regard to his players' frustrations. "But any time you hold a team like this to 10 points at halftime -- we had a pretty good team defense tonight, and that was the difference. We've always told our kids, 'Offense comes and goes, but defense is one thing that's constant.'"

Worthington's cold streak didn't last long.

The Trojans made seven of their first 10 shots from the field and scored on five consecutive possessions at one point, going on a 20-9 run to open the second half. Their defense forced 10 turnovers, and they scored nine points off Willmar giveaways.

Gerber scored on a driving layup to make it 34-19. She followed with a steal near midcourt and cruised the other way for a layup to make it 36-19. A minute later, Aggen drove into the lane and kicked the ball out to Kayla Vander Veen, who drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to push Worthington's lead to 20 points.

"We've always been a team that's been able to turn our defensive pressure into some easy offensive opportunities," Lindner said. "I'm sure they were coming into the game saying the same thing: 'We can't let them do that to us.' The problem is, when you play that kind of tempo and that kind of style, it's hard not to get caught in it. And they got caught in our tempo a little bit in the second half, and that really was a positive thing for us."

Gerber also was a big positive.

The junior guard scored 12 points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field and 3-for-5 shooting from the free-throw line in the second half for the Trojans, who went 12-for-23 (52.1 percent) from the field, 2-for-2 from beyond the arc and 9-for-20 from the free-throw line in the final 18 minutes.

"I think we panicked a little bit and kind of stopped playing like a team," Gerber said. "But we just had to say, 'Calm down; let's work together and get this done.'

"Our offense was struggling, but our defense was doing really good, which kind of makes sense because this week all we focused on was defense. When you emphasize that, it shows in a game."

The Trojans committed 15 turnovers and forced 33.

Mariel Aamot and Hannah Smith each scored seven points, and 6-foot-3 junior center Alex Lippert added six to lead Willmar (22-4), which produced its lowest point total of the season and had a 13-game winning streak snapped.

Evans scored five points before fouling out with 8:26 remaining in the game.

Gerber, who went 6-for-10 from the field in the game, finished with a game-high 16 points. Aggen, who went 0-for-5 from the field in the first half, scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting in the second half and finished with 11 points.

Gabby Boever added nine points, and Martha Alwal and Vander Veen each added five for the Trojans, who return to state after a one-year absence.

"We've waited for it for a year; ever since we lost last year, we've been working for it," Gerber said. "It feels really good, but we're not done yet; we're going to keep going. We're hoping for a state championship."

Willmar 10 21 -- 31

Worthington 19 35 -- 54

WILLMAR (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Evans 0-2-1-5, Aamot 1-2-0-7, Smith 1-2-0-7, Knake 0-1-0-2, Lippert 0-3-0-6, Thompson 0-2-0-4. Totals: 2-12-1-31.

WORTHINGTON (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Aggen 0-4-3-11, G. Boever 1-3-0-9, Malmgren 0-1-0-2, Alwal 0-2-1-5, Vander Veen 1-0-1-3, Schroeder 0-0-1-1, Andersen 0-0-5-5, M. Gerber 0-0-1-1. Totals: 3-15-15-54.