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GIRLS' BASKETBALL: Huskies headed to state

MARSHALL -- Thanks to a determined all-around team effort and a well-executed 13-0 first-half run, the ever-hustling Jackson County Central Huskies are state bound.

JCC celebrates victory
Daniel Kerwin/Daily Globe The Jackson County Central girls' basketball team celebrates its Section 3AA title following Friday's victory against YME at SMSU in Marshall.

MARSHALL -- Thanks to a determined all-around team effort and a well-executed 13-0 first-half run, the ever-hustling Jackson County Central Huskies are state bound.

Yes, the Huskies improved to 26-2 for the season and earned their way to the 2011 state high school girls' basketball tournament by capturing the Section 3AA championship Friday night with a 57-41 victory over Yellow Medicine East at the R / A Facility on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.

"This is awesome, just awesome," declared an elated JCC senior forward Brittney Kruse following the post-game awards ceremony. "This is what I've worked for my whole high school career."

Kruse, who is called "Old Faithful" by JCC head coach Tom Schuller, for her remarkable reliability and consistency, scored eight of her 10 points in the first half Friday night, including the team's first four, as the Huskies struggled to score in the opening minutes.

"Our shooting was a little off at first, but we knew that we had to hustle, play hard on defense and rebound," summed up Kruse about the game's start. "Then, once our shots started falling, we put a nice run of points together."

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Kruse was one of four JCC players who scored in double figures in the contest, as the well-balanced Huskies never trailed in the game after 5-10 junior forward Kaylee Benson (team-high 15 points, four rebounds, two steals) connected on the first of her 3-pointers, snapping an early 4-4 deadlock.

After stringing together 13 unanswered points -- which changed a 7-6 lead to a 20-6 advantage during a span of three minutes and 34 seconds, from the 10:02 mark to when 6:28 showed on the first-half clock -- JCC took a 33-19 advantage into intermission.

In the second half, the Huskies had several 13-point leads and held wider spreads of 41-25, 43-27 and 47-29 before the Sting scored seven straight points to trim JCC's lead to 47-36 with 6:56 left in the game.

The Southwest Conference champions, however, responded with a 6-0 run and with 5:39 to play had increased their lead back to 17 points, 53-36.

Controlling the ball well, the Huskies maintained an advantage of 15 to 18 points the rest of the contest, earning the school's first trip back to the Class AA state tournament since 2004.

"That feels so good," exclaimed senior Courtney Kruse, Brittney's twin sister. "Winning this game and going to the state tournament means a lot. It's so awesome and it's what we've all been working for all year long."

Courtney Kruse scored six of her 10 points after intermission, hitting several clutch shots from the right wing, helping JCC maintain its lead through a nearly evenly-played second half.

The fourth JCC player to notch double figures was 5-5 senior guard Leslie Handzus, who netted 12 points and dished off a game-high nine assists, to go along with five rebounds and a pair of steals. She also deflected seven passes, helping JCC's diversified pressing tactics disrupt YME's offensive flow.

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"She is one of the best guards that we have played against," praised YME head coach Scott Jans about Handzus. "She is so quick and does it all for JCC."

Steffen's shot from corner sparks JCC run, Handzus has three assists in 3:34

There was lots of action in the game's first seven minutes, but very little scoring.

JCC came up with the ball often -- both via steal and by rebound -- but the Huskies missed most of their shots, several of which were well off the mark.

Benson's 3-pointer had given JCC a 7-4 edge at around the 12-minute mark (after two earlier baskets by Brittney Kruse), but a nice drive by YME's Angie Scheffler (10:46) yielded the only two points of the next two minutes.

But with 10:02 on the clock, junior forward Tracey Steffen took a pass from Benson and swished a 16-footer along the left baseline, giving the Huskies a 9-6 edge and triggering what turned out to be a 13-0 run for JCC.

"That was a huge shot," beamed Schuller about Steffen's 2-pointer. "We count on all of our kids to step up and shoot the ball when the chance is there and Tracey sure made a nice one when we really needed it."

Brittney Kruse followed with her second offensive-rebound basket of the game and the lead was 11-6.

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Then after a series of deflected passes, Handzus fired a pass to sophomore forward Marita Rasche for a layup, which gave JCC a 13-6 advantage with 7:55 on the clock.

Twenty-eight seconds later, Handzus sliced through the retreating YME defense on a transition break down the left sideline and finished with a "duck under" layup, increasing the lead to eight points.

Following a timeout by Jans, Handzus handed the ball off to Benson who delivered another 3-pointer and, at the 7:04 mark, the Huskies were up by 10, 18-8.

'Kaylee had a spectacular game," declared Schuller. "She has to work so hard on defense, often guarding the other team's leading scorer, and then she's still able to knock down big shots like those."

Thirty-two seconds after that, Handzus distributed her third assist of the surge, passing to an open Brittney Kruse in the right corner, who drilled the shot, capping the 13-0 run and giving her team a 20-6 advantage.

YME's Gretchen Rigge scored soon after, snapping the Sting's nearly five-minute drought, but Handzus responded with a 3-pointer from the left corner and with 5:18 to go in the half, JCC was in command, 23-8.

The remaining five minutes up to intermission were closely-contested, as the Sting regrouped and put together a 7-2 run, trimming the gap to 25-15.

A flash to the high post by Courtney Kruse (assist Brittney) yielded JCC's only two points during that YME burst.

But, the Huskies stayed in control as junior forward Whitney Burmeister and Benson both sank a pair of free throws, Benson scored on a nifty jumper in the lane, and a steal by Courtney Kruse resulted in a Handzus assist to Courtney for a right wing 2-pointer as the half came to a close.

Benson netted 10 of JCC's first-half points, as a total of seven Huskies scored.

All five starters score as JCC maintains lead

Handzus (seven) and Courtney Kruse combined for 13 of JCC's second-half points, while Benson (five), Burmeister (four) and Brittney Kruse (two) contributed 11 more.

Benson's third trey of the game -- from the right corner with 16:25 to play -- increased JCC's lead to 36-21.

The Sting cut the gap to 11, 36-25, but two free throws by Burmeister made the score 38-25 with 14 minutes left.

Neither squad scored for several possessions, but a 3-pointer by the ever-versatile Handzus from the deep left corner, lifted JCC to a 41-25 advantage with 12:34 on the clock.

After Scheffler (eight points) scored on another strong drive for the Sting, the Huskies countered with a basket off a loose ball scramble, which was picked up Rasche (five deflections, three steals) and passed to Courtney Kruse, who passed to her twin sister for a 43-27 JCC lead.

Another assist from Handzus -- this one to Courtney Kruse -- put the Huskies up by 16 (45-29) with 10:17 to play, and then another steal by Rasche (and her assist) gave Benson 15 points and JCC a 47-29 advantage with 9:05 on the clock.

The Sting, which entered the game having won nine of its last 10 games, rallied briefly with a 7-0 run, but the Huskies stayed ahead as Burmeister attacked -- through YME's press -- for a driving field goal from the high post and the score was 49-36.

A quick basket by Courtney Kruse and two free throws by Handzus put the Huskies up by 17, 53-36, with just under six minutes remaining.

After Courtney Kruse twice made one-of-two free throws, Handzus dazzled the crowd with another spectacular left-side drive, increasing the lead to 57-39 with 3:53 on the clock.

JCC then effectively controlled the game with its four-corner offense and strong defensive rebounding, winning its 12th consecutive game.

"We are just really pleased about winning the section championship," summed up Schuller. "Whitney Burmeister has been our leading scorer all season, but in this game, it was our outstanding balance that came through -- as four players scored double figures and Whitney wasn't one of them. That's just the type of team we are, all the girls can score and contribute to the total team goal -- which is winning the game."

Burmeister (six points, three steals, two assists, one block) finished with a team-high seven rebounds for the Huskies, while Brittney Kruse had six rebounds, including four on the offensive end.

The Kruse twins (Brittney, four) combined to deflect seven passes, while Steffen also got her hands on a YME pass, as the Huskies deflected a total of 20 passes in the game.

"JCC's overall athleticism and their ability to play at a high speed was difficult to overcome," summed up Jans, who will return four starters next season from a team which finished 20-7 and claimed the north sub-section championship with a trio of tournament wins.

"Yellow Medicine East, I think, is a good team," pointed out Schuller. "This was not an easy game because they have a nice all-around team, which plays very good defense."

The Huskies will play Minnehaha Academy, champions of Section 4AA, at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Target Center in Minneapolis.

"I am so happy for these girls, many of whom have been outstanding multiple-sport performers for us at JCC," concluded Schuller. "To get this chance to play in the state tournament is just tremendous for them."

YME 19 22 -- 41

JCC 33 24 -- 57

YME (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Rigge 0-2-0-4, Larson 1-3-1-10, Jans 0-3-0-6, Hinz 0-1-4-6, Baker 0-3-1-7, Scheffler 0-4-0-8. Totals 1-16-6-41.

JCC (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Handzus 2-2-2-12, B. Kruse 0-5-10, Rasche 0-1-0-2, C. Kruse 0-4-2-10, Benson 3-2-2-15, Steffen 0-1-0-2, Burmeister 0-1-4-6. Totals 5-16-10-57.

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