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Eagles defend title with stellar defense

The Eagles' Holly Vis (23) sails past Hills-Beaver Creek forwards Grace Bundesen (33) Sand idney Fick. Tim Middagh / The Globe)1 / 4
Southwest Minnesota Christian's Hannah Nerem (35) blocks a shot by Hills-Beaver Creek guard Madison Spath during Friday's game. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)2 / 4
Hills-Beaver Creek's Sidney Fick (31) shoots a 3-pointer while fouled by SWC's Jazlynn Prins during Friday night's South Section 3A girls basketball game in Marshall (Tim Middagh / The Globe)3 / 4
The Hills-Beaver Creek bench cheers as the defense stymies a Southwest Minnesota Christian possession Friday. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)4 / 4

MARSHALL --- Leading from start to finish and putting all five starters in double figures, the Southwest Minnesota Christian Eagles won another Section 3A South Sub-Section high school girls basketball championship Friday night as they outscored previously undefeated Hills-Beaver by a dozen points, 58-46.

It was the fourth straight sub-section title for the scrappy Eagles, who played stellar team defense all game long. They held the high-scoring Patriots more than 20 points below season average as they frequently limited H-BC to just one shot per possession. Improving to 23-4 overall, the second-seeded Eagles also forced 16 H-B turnovers  -- 10 of them in the first half -- which helped them stay ahead after starting the game with early leads of 5-0, 7-2, 9-4, 11-5, 13-8, 15-10 and 24-12.

It was a disappointing finish for the top-seeded Patriots, who entered the game undefeated (25-0) and were ranked seventh in the state among all 150 Minnesota Class A teams. H-BC ran the table in the Red Rock Conference (16-0), including a pair of victories (72-54 and 77-65) over Southwest Christian, which finished as the league’s runner-up with a 14-2 conference record.

But the third time was the charm for the Eagles, who advance to tangle with the Minneota Vikings (26-1) for the Section 3A championship at SMSU on March 8 with an 8 p.m. tipoff. The Vikings are top-ranked in Class A, having only lost to Brandon Valley (a large South Dakota school), 59-39, on Feb. 5.

Minneota won the North Sub-Section title Friday with a 57-41 victory over Lac qui Parle Valley in a game played on the SMSU court just prior to the repeat title clash between the Patriots and Eagles. The Vikings have won the sectional championship six of the past eight years (2011-2015 and 2018), while Southwest Christian advanced to the state tournament in both 2016 and 2017 after also winning the section crown in 2010.

Among the keys to Southwest’s victory Friday was a remarkable balanced scoring performance. All five starters --- sophomore guard Cybil Vander Top (15 points), senior forward Hannah Nerem (12 points, nine rebounds), senior forward Holly Vis (11 points), junior guard Jazlynn Prins (10 points) and sophomore center Maren Nerem (10 points, 11 rebounds) --- notched double-figures for the Eagles.

“That was just exceptional scoring balance,” praised long-time SWC head coach Denise Nerem. “I am just super proud of all of our girls and how well each one of them stepped up and did a great job of playing the game piece-by-piece valuing each possession on offense and really getting after a very good team with just a tremendous defensive effort all night long.”

Starting with a rebound basket by Maren Nerem and finishing with a trio of free throws by Prins, the Eagles maintained the lead from wire to wire, continually holding off any rallying efforts by the Patriots.

Southwest’s biggest burst was a 9-0 first-half run (following a steal and layup by H-BC sophomore guard Abby Knobloch, which trimmed the Eagles’ lead to 15-12). Hannah Nerem started the surge by scoring inside, Vander Top drained a pair of free throws and Vis scored from mid-range before drilling a 3-pointer, stretching her team’s advantage to 24-12.

H-BC countered by scoring eight of the next 10 points and coming with six (26-20) by intermission.

Vis (seven), the Nerem sisters (six each), Vander Top (five) and Prins (two) combined for SWC’s 26 first-half points, while Grace Bundesen (seven), Sidney Fick (five), Knobloch (four), Kenadie Fick (two) and Taryn Rauk (two) had all scored for H-BC.

Each team exchanged baskets in the opening minutes of the second half and with 14:27 remaining, SWC held a 10-point edge (34-24). H-BC netted five straight points on a three-pointer by Rauk and a lay-up by Fick, slicing the gap to five (34-29) --- but that was the closest the Patriots came.

A free throw and two-point field goal by Vander Top, followed by a long two-pointer by Hannah Nerem, pushed the lead back to 10 (39-29). Bundesen and Vis traded baskets before H-BC cut the deficit to six 41-35) on a field goal by Madison Spath and a coast-to-coast drive by the ever-versatile Bundesen.

But with 10:40 showing on the clock, Vander Top connected on her second 3-pointer of the game and the Eagles were leading 44-35.

A free throw by Rauk and a nifty transition basket (from Whitney Elbers to Bundesen to Sidney Fick) brought the Patriots to within eight (46-38), giving them a spark with just over seven minutes left.  

A pair of free throws by Prins were matched an inside hoop by Elbers before Hannah Nerem hit a clutch shot to put the Eagles up 10 again at 50-40 with 4:25 left.

A rebound bucket by Maren Nerem pushed the lead to 12 before H-BC’s Kenadie Fick answered with a 3-pointer (with 2:18 left) to slice the spread to nine (52-43). Another free throw by Prins made it a 10-point advantage (53-43) again and then --- with 1:07 left to play --- Sidney Fick hit her first and only 3-pointer of the game, trimming the SWC lead to 53-46.

The Eagles, however, closed out the contest with a pair of free throws by Vander Top (seven-of-eight at the line) and three by Prins (six-of-eight) as they won their sixth sub-section championship in the past 10 years, including the last four in a row.

Southwest Christian made 15-of-20 free throws (75 percent) and was 20-of-52 (38.5 percent) from the field, making 17-of-42 two-point shots and 3-of-10 from behind the arc.

H-BC, led in scoring by Sidney Fick (14 points), Bundesen (11) and Rauk (eight), shot just 33 percent from the field (19-of-58) and 44 percent (4-of-9) from the free throw line. Elbers and Sidney Fick each blocked three shots in the game for the Patriots, who rejected a total of eight Eagle attempts. H-BC was a mere 4-of-22 (18 percent) on three-pointers against the aggressive-playing SW Christian defenders.

Eagles 26   58                                                                                                                                                 

Patriots 20   46

Eagles (3FG-2FG-FT-TP Vander  Top 3-1-7-15, Prins 0-2-6-10, Vis 1-4-0-11, H. Nerem 0-5-2-12, M. Nerem 0-5-2-10. Totals 3-17-15-58.

Patriots (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) K. Fick 1-0-0-3, Rauk 1-2-1-8, Spath 0-1-0-2, Knobloch 0-3-0-6, S. Fick 1-5-1-14, Bundesen 1-3-2-11, Elbers 0-1-0-2. Totals 4-15-4-46.

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