By Greg Hunt
In a wildly entertaining game which had two physical defenses pitted against each other, the Braham girls basketball squad got past uber-rival Esko 68-58 in double-overtime March 8 at UMD. The victory sends the Bombers to their fourth-straight State tourney, going back as the defending Class AA champions.
This is the third straight season the Bombers and Eskomos met in the Section 7AA title tilt, and each battle has come down to the wire. Or in Thursday night’s case, three wires.
Braham had its share of difficulties with Esko’s pressure defense which had 6’8’ Savanna Trapp patrolling the center to cut off drives. Racking up several turnovers, Braham led just 25-22 at the end of the first half. The best stretch for the Bombers came with Becca Cuda nailing a three-pointer followed by two Becca Dahlman steals and layups which had Braham ahead 23-15.
“Their defense was incredible,” exclaimed point guard Austyn Eng. “They switched everything from the first time we played this year. It was hard for us to get a shot off. Once we started driving and kicking out, that helped, but we couldn’t run our normal offense. We had to keep running baseline to get the open girls.”
Scrappy guard Cuda lost her junior season to a knee injury and was forced to cheer the team on crutches last year. “I felt it was really nice to just be able to come back and play this year. I feel like I’m comfortable with the team again, and they trust me, which is awesome. In the beginning of this season, I wasn’t steady with my knee, but now I’m feeling okay,” she said.
Dahlman had a case of the clankers in the second half, with several shots bouncing off the back rim. Meanwhile, Eskomo junior Marissa Shady– who placed 3rd at the Class A State Cross Country meet last autumn– sliced the defense for 16 points in the half as Trapp’s foul count grew. Up stepped big-game hunter Kelsey Sorenson-Giffrow who supplied 12 points in the half, including knocking down a three-pointer in traffic with 40 seconds left in regulation to put Braham ahead 46-44.
“My shot was not on tonight, and I can thank my team being on and picking me up,” described KSG. “Getting the three-pointer to put us up 41-39 helped a lot and gave us some momentum. This is my home gym now since I will be going to UMD next year. We’ve been here four years in a row now, so we should be comfortable up here.”
Back answered Esko, however, when Brooke Schramm drove to tie the game 46-46 which went into overtime when Braham’s final possession went nowhere.
In the first overtime, Esko kept ahead with its driving offense, then Trapp was flagged for her fifth foul on a questionable call with just under three minutes in that session when Dahlman took the ball to the holes– sinking both free throws.
“I’ve watched Esko play four times this year, and we’ve played them once– not one of those games did Savanna foul out,” said Braham Coach Tim Malone. “Most of the time she extends with her hands straight up and plays very disciplined defense. Amanda (Sybrant) and Dani (Braund) combined to defend Trapp. We didn’t give them a lot of help down there; I think both of those girls played very good defense tonight. We were more concerned with Esko’s ability to shoot the ‘3,’ along with shifting Becca on that Shady girl who is a phenomenal athlete.”
On defending the tall Trapp, Sybrant said, “It was tough, but our coaches just kept telling us to push and push. That’s what me and Dani did; we did what we were told to do. It worked; she got tired.” Sybrant added, “It feels great to just be part of the team and to actually be a player this year. In the past, I just kind of cheered on the bench. I was a big part tonight, and it was great my team trusted in me.”
As the OT session continued, Dahlman relocated her shooting touch, breaking Tayler Hill’s season-scoring total with a couple huge outside shots.
“I guess the record came on the three-pointer when I was about 4-feet in back of the line (which re-knotted the game at 51-51). That’s pretty neat to get it on that shot. (Her next three-pointer– coming after Sorenson-Giffrow ran down an offensive board in the corner– re-tied the game 54-54 after Esko’s Kallyn Knutson popped a ‘3’). And it’s pretty neat getting the Gatorade Player of the Year, that’s a great honor (which was announced after the game, along with the record notice). There’s so many great players out there in Minnesota, I have to give so much credit to all of them,” said Dahlman post-game.
Even with Trapp fouling out, Esko had chances to put away the victory late in that first OT. First, Braund drew a key offensive charge against Esko back-up center Reuer with Esko leading 51-48. Then, Schramm missed two free throws with 32.8 remaining. Braham lost control of the ball in their end, and Esko had it back with 12.8 left.
Dahlman came up with probably the defensive play of the game when she disrupted the Eskomos’ set with a wily knock-away out-of-bounds. With the clock now at 1.8 seconds, Esko ran the inbounds play to Steph Bandelin underneath; defender KSG fell on the play, but Bandelin’s layup rolled off the rim to send the battle to its second overtime. The entire Braham fan section exhaled in unison.
The Bombers steadily took control. Dahlman had four early points in one trip when Braund gathered in a missed free throw and set up Dahlman for a three-point play. Then during a scramble on the next trip, Eng calmly knocked down a jumper on the wing for a 60-56 edge.
“Becca got a rebound, got it to me. I thought, ‘I got to shoot it– I can’t pass it up. I’m wide open.’ My shooting’s been on lately, so I was like, ‘I’m going to make this,’” she recalled.
The exclamation mark came at 1:53 to go when Dahlman picked Shady’s pocket, went end-to-end, got clobbered on the shot by Schramm, sunk the shot and finished off the three-point play for a seven-point edge. From there, the Bomber star sunk 5-of-6 free throws to ice the State trip, finishing with 37 points.
“I think we were able to run on them on them more in overtime. We had more leg strength than them. Savanna was out with fouls, our defense was getting better– we were taking charges. We did all the correct things we needed to win,” said KSG. “I don’t know what I would have done if we would have lost. It was going through my mind while we were playing: ‘We can’t lose this game!’ It just means the world if we can go back and repeat.”
Coach Malone analyzed, “I don’t think we played real well at times. I thought we had 20 turnovers on the game, and some of those were uncharacteristic turnovers. I don’t know how we did it, but we got more settled down in overtime; I think the turnovers stopped in overtime. I just kept telling them: ‘Big players play big in big games.’ And our big players stepped up. Kelsey stepped up with those ‘3s’. Becca stepped up obviously.
“I have to be the most blessed person in this whole world to get this job and this group of kids. The kids worked so hard. They weren’t going to quit. They weren’t going to say ‘Die.’ They weren’t going to roll over. And they pulled it out.”
“This is the fourth time we’ve done this, and doesn’t get old,” finished Eng. “Getting to State is not old. It’s so exciting every time. We try to stay composed after the game because we’ve been here. But you really can’t because it’s so exciting. Running up there as a team for the plaque is so great. But what a stressful way to get there!”