Bombers advance after yet another thriller over Esko in Section 7AA finals
When you go into battle against a very familiar, tough foe, you’ll take any breaks you can get. On March 7, the Braham girls were facing Esko for the fourth straight time in the Section 7AA championship. Each previous meeting was nail-bitingly close, so the Bombers were leaving no stone unturned.
“Each of the last three years, we’ve eaten the same team meal cooked by the same team mom for this night. We did it again today– same meal, same time, same place– in the name of superstition,” explained Braham Coach Tim Malone. “I would just like to give a shout-out to all our parents for the work that they do. It’s absolutely a family.”
When you have a Becca Dahlman back on the University of Minnesota-Duluth floor, that’s a pretty good rabbits’ foot to have in your backpocket, as well. Dahlman led all scorers with 31 points in the Bombers’ 58-53 win over the Eskomos that locked in the team’s fifth straight trip to State.
“This means the world to me. This is what I love, and this is what I live to do. Preparing to keep moving on. Getting better and keep moving,” said the senior guard after the win. “Our mentality on the team is if someone falls on the team, we all fall. We did not back down tonight. We came together; we fought to the very end. That’s what wins us this game.
“They are a very well-coached, great team. Honestly, it was a battle, and I’m glad we’re going to State again. We knew it was going to be Esko again from the beginning of the season, and…Wow! Wow!”
The game began with Esko running two swift defenders on Dahlman who scored the first points following an offensive board, then Jenna Winter popped a three-pointer. Braham made it 10-4 after three more points from Dahlman and Dani Braund scoring past Esko’s 6’9” Savanna Trapp.
The Bombers went cold for a stretch, then Winter bounced in her next big ‘3’. Braham kept the lead until the Eskomos rallied to tie it at 19-19, but Kayla Nickles settled things down by swishing a ‘3’ in front of the loud Esko student section and following up with a layup fed by Jaclyn Hollenkamp.
Nickles described, “We kind of knew they were going to face-guard me, pressure me to keep from my normal ‘3’ shooting. But when it was my shot to take it, I just took it and saw ‘It’s going in! It’s going in!’”
Braund got around Trapp for another bucket, but the halftime score stood at 26-21 when Claudia Turner drove for a score at the buzzer. Trapp had 8 points for Esko, with Turner scoring 6.
Second half lead changes
Braham opened the second half with a pair of turnovers, but then it was Nickles again supplying the settling shot when she drilled a three-pointer to quell the noise coming from the not-exactly classy student section. “I just love it when they’re saying whatever, and then you just go and make a ‘3’ or another shot, and then they’re all quiet,” she said. “We shut them up pretty easily, I think!”
But the game began turning on Turner’s drives. Her three-point play and ensuing field goal gave the Eskomos their first lead of 33-32 at the 13:10 mark. Solid screens from Braund and Hollenkamp gave Dahlman a slim opening to score seven straight Braham points, but the Bombers still trailed 43-39 since Marissa Shady began taking it the hole for the Eskomos.
That’s when Winter dialed it in for a baseline ‘3,’ and the tide began to change.
“I was really just trying to get our momentum back and trying to pump our team back up because we were kind of down and nobody had smiles on their faces,” said Winter. “So when I got an open look down in the corner, I just tried to get it in there. When it released out of my hands, I was just praying that it would go in. When it did, I just felt like the whole game shifted, and it was amazing!”
Picking up the defensive intensity
The Bombers worked harder on the D-boards, and Dahlman blitzed for two driving buckets to make it 46-43, forcing an Esko timeout at the 4:01 mark.
“There was a timeout in there, and we talked about defense. We talked about if we don’t get our butt down and start playing defense, we’re going to be done,” replayed Coach Malone. “At about that point when we were down by four, it turned into more of a transition game– scoring layups in transition while working hard defensively. In general, it was the defense that changed this game, and we were able to score in transition. That’s kind of our M.O and that’s how we play. Once we got it going our way, things looked good.”
Down the stretch the Bombers trapped hard and limited the penetration of Turner and Shady. And Braund, despite playing with four fouls, kept a grip on tall Trapp who was playing with a broken toe.
“Yesterday at practice we prepared for Savanna– whether or not she was going to play. We went all out practicing for the hardest test we would be coming up against which would be Savanna,” said Braund. “I basically had to stop her, and box her out– not let her get rebounds.
“I’m exhausted. It’s a lot of work, and I had to keep my hands off Savanna later since I had the four fouls. I just went in there and played smart defense.”
“To win it, we knew we had to get back down and shuffle,” added Nickles, who fought for a huge defensive rebound late. “We couldn’t let Turner or Shady go to the basket anymore because Savanna wasn’t hurting us as much as she could have. We just knew we had to stop Shady and Turner at the very end, and we would have it.”
Braund also helped by banking home a bucket, followed by Dahlman stepping back for a long shot– punctuated by a fist pump– to make it 50-43. Shady answered with a layup, but back came Dahlman scoring on a reverse past Trapp. Then Braund pump-faked her way to another layup for a 54-46 advantage with 1:35 left.
“Dani Braund– there’s another senior for you who doesn’t want the season to end. She stepped up big,” said Coach Malone. “She knew what her role was going to have to be tonight– at times not getting any rebounds at all in the name of making sure Savanna doesn’t. I thought at times Dani sacrificed like she needed to, and then at times she stepped up big with her shots to give us 10 points.”
Esko got it back to 54-51 on a ‘3’ and two free throws with 28.3 seconds left. Dahlman then knocked down four straight free throws to close the deal, her last two with only 5.9 seconds remaining.
“Some of the composure of the younger girls rubs off from Becca. They’ve grown up with her and played with her. Becca struggled a little bit in the first half, so I think the rest of her teammates were the calming factor in that half,” said Coach Malone. “Then as Becca caught on fire, our other girls got more and more confident. They just feed on each other– lots of confidence.”
“I get the same feeling every time we make it to State,” said Nickles after the trophy and ribbons were handed out. “I’m excited because I knew we can go far. We’ve got three more games left; I know we can do it because we have just a great bond together.”
“It means a lot to contribute to the win and be a part of this amazing team that can make it to State five years in a row,” wrapped up Braund.
Just keep those same team dinners cooking– along with playing a broiling defense– and good things could happen at the Target Center.