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State girls basketball: Southwest Christian wins fifth-place game at state tournament

Southwest Christian girls basketball team captains Leah Buys (left) and Emily Nerem (right) accept the Eagles' fifth-place trophy after their victory over G-H-EC/T/ML on Saturday in St. Paul. (Adam Watts/Daily Globe)1 / 2
Southwest Christian senior forward Chantel Groen puts up a shot at the baseline as G-H-EC/T/ML's Kenlie Pytleski attempts to block on Saturday in St. Paul. (Adam Watts/Daily Globe)2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- The Southwest Christian girls basketball went to the state tournament and proved that they belonged. After falling to No. 1 seed -- and eventual second-place finisher -- Mountain Iron-Buhl in the first round, the Eagles battled back through the consolation bracket and earned the fifth place trophy with a 79-67 victory over Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman/Martin Luther in the consolation final on Saturday at the Gangelhoff Center at Concordia University in St. Paul.

“I think the girls did a tremendous job proving that they are one of the best teams down here,” Southwest Christian head coach Denise Nerem said. “We had to do it the old fashioned way. You have to win your way out of it, when you don’t win the first one. They did a tremendous job in these last couple of games. they were gritty and physical and they really had to gut it out against two very very good teams.”

The win certainly didn’t come easily for the Eagles, who trailed 41-33 at halftime. But they made all of the necessary adjustments and came out of the break on fire and determined to win.

Eagles junior guard Brooklyn DeKam started the second half with a steal that she turned into a layup and converted an and-one after being fouled. The three points opened a 10-2 run that closed the gap for SWC and tied the game at 43-43 on a 3-pointer by Leah Buys only 2:17 into the second half.

Southwest Christian took its first lead since early in the first half, 46-45, when DeKam was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three of her free throws.

“We had to come right out of the chute and when I had that first steal, it energized us,” said DeKam who tied for the team lead with 23 points. “We hit a lot of big free throws in the second half and that energized us to push forward. We knew this was going to be our last game no matter what, so why not go all out.”

Halftime adjustments were key for the Eagles defensively. After allowing 41 points in the first half, including 20 to Jaguars guard Hannah Johanson, the Eagles only gave up 26 in the second half, and held Johanson to five points after the break.

“It was so loud in the gym,” coach Nerem said. “I think in my timeouts, they were just nodding at me. I don’t think they heard me explain to them how to fix it. But in halftime, they heard me. I think once we fixed that it was much better. We did a tremendous job on (Johanson), and I did change defensive assignments in the second half. That made a huge difference.”

The Eagles racked up 16 steals in the game, with nine in the second half. They used the turnovers to create fastbreak opportunities to score quick points and draw fouls. Senior forward Chantel Groen had seven steals, while DeKam had three and Jazlynn Prins had two.

“We were watching film last night and our team said ‘ok, we need to jump on these passes,’” said Groen, who scored 23 points. “And when I saw them coming, I said ‘Oh, I need to do this.’ If you see the ball, you need to go get it. That’s what helped us get those steals -- myself and as a team -- we just did the fundamentals and new we had to jump the passes.”

Throughout the second half, the Jaguars consistently attempted long, full-court inbound passes to try to get scorers over the top of the defense. But Groen’s speed wreaked havoc on those long passes as she closed out on the ball as soon as it reached its destination nearly every time.

“It’s like a track meet,” coach Nerem said. “That’s what you were watching was a track meet. My husband always says Chantel’s the best wide receiver we have. She’s an exceptional track athlete and she used her speed to her advantage.”

SWC had to rely on its depth a little bit more than it is accustomed to, as it got into foul trouble down the stretch. Emily Nerem, DeKam and Buys all finished the game with four fouls, but the Eagles didn’t miss a beat as 10 players got minutes and their bench outscored the Jaguars bench 7-0.

“I think our bench did a great job coming in,” Emily Nerem said. “We got good minutes from Olivia (Veldkamp) and Sydney (Van Hulzen) coming in. And especially coming in cold like that in a tight game, I thought they did a great job.”

Hannah Nerem grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and scored nine points for SWC, which out-rebounded G-H-EC/T/ML 35-32. Emily Nerem had eight rebounds and scored 11 points. Groen had six rebounds.

Hanna Geistfeld scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Jaguars, while Kenlie Pytleskie scored eight points with seven rebounds.

“Of all the games we played in the state tournament, we knew that we had to beat them to the boards,” DeKam said. “One of the things we called our keys to victory was our rebounding. And we have Chantel and Hannah, they’re monster rebounders.”

The Eagles finished their season 27-4 and get to go out as winners.

“I’m really proud of our team and what we did today,” said Groen, who ended her high school basketball career with the victory. “We worked hard out there, we kept our calm, we weren’t nervous. Ending the season here with this team was the best way to end it.”

Southwest Christian 33 79

G-H-EC/T/ML 41 67