Class AA State Preview: You’ve got to like the defending champions’ chances

Braham enters its fourth-straight State tourney on a good roll after surviving another hard-fought battle in the Section 7AA finals. The Bombers will be aiming to be the first Class AA team to repeat as champions since Blake did it in 1998 and 1999.

Despite losing tremendous leadership from last season’s senior group, the Braham girls go into State with the ultimate outlook: “We’re the champs until somebody takes it away from us.” Knowing how well they can play pressure defense and with their big-game experience, you’ve got to like their chances in the 2012 brackets.

Having the 2012 Gatorade® Minnesota Girls Basketball Player of the Year in junior Becca Dahlman is a nice trump card. Dahlman broke the state’s season-scoring record (averaging 35.5 ppg) and is 22 points away from Tayler Hill’s career-scoring mark of 3,888.

“But my goal this season is to win another State championship– to repeat,” said Dahlman, who set a MSHSL girls’ record by hitting 39-of-50 free throws at State last year.

Her big growth this year came in defensive discipline. Dahlman has 184 steals going into State compared with drawing just 63 fouls (just over 2 fouls/game average). Her body control while attacking the hoop is also incredible which allowed her to sink 298-of-377 free throws this season while avoiding racking up too many charging calls. And she leads the Bombers with 157 assists.

Will Kelsey Sorenson-Giffrow and the Bombers be cutting down the nets again at Target Center Saturday afternoon? As always, the first step is a big one (ie. undefeated NRHEG).

Senior Kelsey Sorenson-Giffrow is another great reason to believe in the Bombers’ chances. KSG has always been a big-time producer in seven State games while showing absolutely no fear. She is averaging 15.5 ppg, along with 5.7 rebounds and compiling 64 steals. Her 68 three-pointers lead the team, and when she attacks, Sorenson-Giffrow has made 82 percent of her free throws.

Senior point guard Austyn Eng uses her track speed to harass on defense (57 steals), and she has sunk 33 three-pointers. Eng is also smart with the ball, dishing 87 assists while compiling only 47 turnovers. Sophomore Kayla Nickles has stepped up greatly this season, sinking 52 ‘3s’ amid her 10.3 ppg average. She has 77 steals to go with 4.5 rebounds/game. Taking over the middle defense this season are senior Amanda Sybrant (4.0 rebounds/game, 30 steals) and junior Dani Braund (3.5 rebounds/game, 4.3 ppg). Bench strength at guard comes from senior Becca Cuda and fleet 8th-grader Jaclyn Hollenkamp.

The Bombers lead all Class AA teams with 229 made three-pointers this season. The next closest are Providence Academy (170) and Sauk Centre (144).

Braham’s quarterfinal opponent on the Target Center floor will be undefeated Section 2AA champ New Richland-Hartland-E-G (6 p.m. March 14). The Panthers are making their second-overall State trip (first one was 2004) and survived a tough 59-54 section championship game against St. Peter. Sophomore star 5’11” Carlie Wagner paces the Panthers with 28.1 ppg and is the program’s all-time scorer. NRHEG attacks the boards well, doubling their foes’ rebounding total this season while led by 6’ center Anna Schlaak (10 rebounds/game). The team also can swipe the ball, led by Wagner’s 129 steals and Schlaak’s 117. Jade Schultz is the Panthers’ top outside gunner with 77 three-pointers this season.

Also in Upper Brackets: Sauk Centre vs. Worthington. Sauk Centre is back at State for the third-straight winter after finishing in 3rd place in 2011. Junior 5’11” Macy Weller is averaging 15.8 ppg and 9.3 rebounds/game for the Section 6AA champs. She matches well with 6’1” senior Kali Peschel who is scoring 14.1 ppg and is heading to the University of Iowa next year. Krista Primus paces the Mainstreeters with 39 three-pointers.

Worthington achieved its fifth State berth over the past 10 years by taking a tight Section 3AA title win over Lake Crystal-Wellcome. Senior 5’8” Mackenzie Gerber is the Trojans’ leader with 17.7 ppg and 9.0 rebounds/game, along with averaging 5 steals/game.

Lower Brackets matchups: Providence Academy vs. Minnehaha Academy. Top-ranked Providence Academy, with its returning depth, will likely be considered the tourney favorite by much of the media. The Lions, who lost to the Bombers in last year’s semifinals, have familiar tough players junior 5’9” Lea Szabla (16.0 ppg) and senior 6’1” AnnMarie Healy back as leaders. They also can throw 6’2” Jordan Meyer or 6’1” McKenna Happke (both sophomores) at you. Last year’s runner-up Minnehaha Academy has a very different look without 6’5” Katelyn Adams at center (graduated), but junior Nicole Nipper can light it up outside (77 three-pointers amid her 16.9 ppg).

Pequot Lakes vs. Zumbrota-Mazeppa. Pequot Lakes is another familiar team to Braham fans since the Patriots fought hard in a quarterfinal loss to the Bombers last season. Senior 6’0” Matti Lueck has rocked for 19.1 ppg and 7.1 rebounds/game, leading the squad with 31 ‘3s.’ The Patriots survived a 55-52 triple-overtime win over strong Hawley in the Section 8AA finals. The newcomer to the field is Zumbrota-Mazeppa, making its first State trip out of Section 1AA. Senior Ashley Hinsch, who set team single-season records in both scoring (16.0 ppg) and assists (122) this year, leads the Cougars.