Things continue to go well for the Central girls’ basketball team, which suffered its second loss of the season but also picked up two more wins during and after the holiday break.
The Raiders are now 9-2 overall on the season, and are in sole possession of second place in the Minnesota River Conference after a big win over Watertown-Mayer last week.
Over the break, the Raiders hosted a holiday tournament where they defeated Nevis 67-43 in the opener on Dec. 28. A 75-54 loss to Maranatha Christian (rated No. 3 in Class A) followed on Dec. 29, and the Raiders resumed conference play with a 76-61 win over Watertown-Mayer on Jan. 4.
Central is 4-1 in the MRC, trailing only Jordan, which is 5-0 so far this season. Watertown-Mayer dropped back into third place after the loss to Central.
Central 67, Nevis 43
A familiar face was running the Nevis bench during the first game of the holiday tournament, as Bill Dent, former varsity boys’ coach at Central, returned to his old stomping grounds.
“Nevis came down because Bill Dent is their coach. We always got along while he was here and he still loves the community even though he moved back up north, so it was kind of a fun game,” said Raiders head coach Gary Lembcke.
While Nevis had some quality players in the front line, including a 1,000-point scorer, the Raiders outclassed their opponent from the guard position, played with grit inside, and built a 42-27 lead by the intermission.
“I thought we came out and played hard, pushed the ball up court and got some very good shots,” said Lembcke. “I thought we played good defense. Nevis has a very athletic front line, they had some quality players, but I thought our post players did a great job of battling.”
Morgan Karnes had her best game of the year for Central, scoring a career-high 18 points and grabbing six rebounds.
Lexi Erpenbach led the Raiders with 25 points, five assists and six steals. Brooke Willemsen also reached double digits with 10 points, a team-high nine rebounds, three assists and five steals. Kaylie Brazil scored seven points with five steals.
“We really moved the ball and took good shots,” said Lembcke.
Maranatha 75, Central 54
The Raiders faced one of their toughest challenges of the year the following night, taking on the two-time defending Class A state champion Maranatha Christian.
While the Raiders matched the Mustangs step-for-step through most of the first half, holding a 34-30 lead 16 minutes in, Maranatha turned up its game to seize the momentum and take a 38-34 lead before halftime, then rolled through the second half to a 21-point win.
“They’ve got a great team,” said Lembcke. “We really battled with them for the first 16 minutes of the game. We were running with them, we were getting good shots and we were hitting them. But they have a lot of weapons. Second half, unfortunately it seemed like we got cold and may have rushed a few things at times.
“Even though it was a 75-54 loss, I was very pleased with the way we played. They’ve been the state champions for the last two years in Class A, and they still have most of those players back. Every time we might have had a chance to come back they got some run outs and hit some threes. They just put on a clinic in the second half.”
Lembcke said the game gave the Raiders a valuable opportunity to see an opponent that put forth a complete game.
“They’ve got all the pieces: great quickness on the outside and a couple of just terrific outside shooters, so they can really put up the threes and take the ball to the basket because they’ve got some nice size. One of them already has a scholarship to Mississippi State, and I’m not even sure she’s their best player,” said Lembcke. “I really enjoyed playing that game because it gives us an idea of where we’re at. Some of the games we’ve played it seems we’re working harder than the other team, but this game we really had to work hard because this team was quick. It shows us another level, and yet I still think we can compete at that level.”
Nicole Miller led the Raiders with 18 points and 12 rebounds while matching up against Maranatha’s Division I post player. Brazil and Erpenbach each scored a dozen points, and combined for seven assists and five steals.
Central 76, W-M 61
In a game that was vital to the conference standings, two second place teams faced off at Watertown-Mayer on Friday and the Raiders came away with a 15-point win despite falling into an early hole.
About four minutes into the game the Raiders found themselves down 13-2, with the Royals connecting on three three-pointers in quick succession, but a change in defensive strategy and an improvement in shooting accuracy helped the Raiders go on a 10-point run to erase that deficit in the next several minutes.
“Watertown was a very big win for us, but it didn’t look good the first 3-4 minutes,” said Lembcke. “A lot of our problem was transition defense. We were hustling back, but we weren’t finding people. So they were able to spot up, find the open shooters and knock down the three. So we got out of our press and then we really had a workmanlike game plan where we kept pushing the ball.”
Good ball movement on offense gave the Raiders plenty of opportunities for open looks around the perimeter, and Erpenbach and Brazil took advantage. Brazil poured in 34 points with seven assists and went 6-6 from three-point range.
Erpenbach scored 21 points, including four three-pointers. Willemsen and Karnes each grabbed nine rebounds to lead the team in that category.
“They did a lot of trapping trying to get back in the game in the end, and we did a nice job of handling that — finding the open players and getting to the spots where we could receive the passes,” said Lembcke. “I was very pleased with the win because we haven’t had a lot of success against Watertown the past couple of years, and they still have some quality ballplayers.”
Contact Paul Downer at [email protected]