For the first time since 2005, the Central girls’ basketball team has claimed a share of the Minnesota River Conference title.
The Raiders finished up their conference season last week with wins over Belle Plaine and Sibley East, and were on an eight-game winning streak going into the final regular season game at Howard Lake on Tuesday.
Jordan and Central topped the standings with identical 13-1 records in league play, with their only losses coming to each other during a regular season split.
“I’m very proud of the girls for winning the conference because it was one of their goals. They’ve worked very hard, and I think it is quite an accomplishment,” said Raiders head coach Gary Lembcke. “The kids are very excited about it. They worked hard during the season, and a lot of it goes back to the offseason. They put in a lot of time practicing and going to tournaments and stuff like that. It’s nice to see them get rewarded for their time and effort.”
Last week the Raiders picked up three wins in all, notching a 74-52 road win over Belle Plaine on Feb. 12, dominating Sibley East 78-35 at home on Feb. 15 and beating Pelican Rapids 51-39 at the College of St. Benedict on Feb. 16.
With those victories, the Raiders improved their overall season record to 21-4.
Section seeding was determined on Wednesday this week, and Lembcke said the Raiders would likely be either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed behind probable No. 1 Providence Academy and possibly Jordan as well. Providence Academy is currently ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 2A.
Central 74, Belle Plaine 52
In the first game of the week the Raiders blitzed Belle Plaine with what might have been their fastest start of the season, scoring 30 points in the first nine minutes.
“We came out just a’blazing that game,” said Lembcke. “We were working our offense, we had a lot of back door cuts and we were hitting shots. You won’t see that often. It just seemed like we were hitting everything. We were definitely ready to play that game because we just came out on fire.”
By halftime the Raiders had scored 47 points and held Belle Plaine to 26, but the scoring pace slowed down in the second half and the Tigers were able to climb back to within 14 points before the Raiders stopped forcing plays, settled into the offense and started connecting on shots again.
Lexi Erpenbach led the team with 21 points and five assists, and Sami Jo Brinkmann scored 13 points with seven rebounds.
Nicole Miller scored 10 points with six rebounds, and Brooke Willemsen led the team in boards with 12.
Central 78, Sibley East 35
Knowing that a win would give them a share of the MRC crown, the Raiders showed some rough edges in the early going against Sibley East, but slammed the door on the Wolverine offense in the second half and ran away with a 43-point win.
In the first half, the Raiders took a comfortable 35-21 lead, but Lembcke said it was apparent that the team wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders.
“Even though we had 35 points, it didn’t seem like our offense was clicking very well,” he said.
Fortunately, Kaylie Brazil was able to supply a steady stream of offense in the early going, knocking down five first-half three-pointers and finishing with seven long range buckets and 33 total points in the game.
“That’s where a lot of our scoring came in. Otherwise, we had some players who were struggling with their shots,” Lembcke said.
In the second half, the Raiders put together a dominating defensive performance that held the Wolverines to just 14 points.
“We really shut them down defensively and got our offense going with some steals,” said Lembcke. “I thought we played a very good game. I think the girls knew that if they won that game they were conference champions so they might have been a little tight at the start. They wanted to get that 20-point lead right off the bat. We struggled, but we gradually built up to that.”
Erpenbach scored 17 points in the game and added six assists, and Brazil notched four assists and seven steals along with her team-high in points.
Brinkmann also scored 10 points and had a team-leading seven rebounds.
Central 51, PR 39
The final game of the week pitted the Raiders against a quality Pelican Rapids team that had posted 15 wins to date. For the second game in a row, the Raiders took a first-half lead at 31-27, then smothered the opponent with a shut-down defense that allowed just 12 second half points.
“Our defense in the second half was phenomenal,” said Lembcke. “Defensively we’ve really picked up our game, which is really important because you need to have those stands where you can stop them if your offense isn’t working as well as it should be.”
Brazil continued her hot streak of long-range sniping, connecting on six out of eight three-point attempts and leading the Raiders with 26 points.
Erpenbach had eight points, Willemsen scored seven with a team-high 18 rebounds, and Morgan Karnes scored with points with seven rebounds.
“We’re doing a lot of things well right now. Our rebounding is strong. Offensively, we can score. We may have some individuals who are not shooting real well right now, but we have time to work on that,” said Lembcke.