Wildcats win playoff opener at buzzer

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No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchups in the section playoffs are usually hard fought games and the action on Feb. 28 was just that as the Wildcats won in dramatic fashion 63-60.

“I thought we hustled really good at the end, especially because we were down by four with like a minute left,” Tess Johnson said.

“We did what we needed to when it was needed,” added Sidney Zieske.

The ‘Cats led the first 33 minutes of the game, but with a two point lead and just under 3 minutes remaining the Whitehawks hit a huge three to take a one point lead. The ‘Cats responded with 3 straight turnovers on their next three possessions and the Whitehawks built their lead to four with just over a minute to play.

That’s when freshman Tess Johnson hit a three to cut the Mound-Westonka lead to one (60-59). On the ensuing possession the ‘Cats were called for a foul but Mound Westonka missed the front end of the one and one and with under 30 seconds to play Johnson would strike again, driving down the lane for the go ahead layup.

The ‘Cats led by one but Mound-Westonka had the ball and a chance to take back the lead before a loose ball ended up in the hands of Zieske and the junior was fouled. She made the first of two free throws to extend the lead to 62-60 with 16 seconds to play. As the Whitehawks set up their offense in an attempt to tie or take the lead, Johnson stole the ball and drove in for a layup but it rolled out. Zieske was there to get the big rebound and she was fouled with 0.7 seconds left. She missed the first free throw but made the second to extend the lead to three. The Whitehawks half court heave at the buzzer banged off the back board and the ‘Cats comeback propelled them to a section semi-final matchup with No. 1 seed Hutchinson.

“Mound played very well but our players made key shots and got big steals when the chips were down,” coach Carl Pierson said. “We’ve been talking about mental toughness all season and how to respond the right way when things aren’t going well. When we trailed for the first time with a little less than 3 minutes to play our mental toughness was tested. The thing that pleased me most about the game wasn’t even the outcome. It was that when we were down 4 with a minute to go I didn’t see a single player hanging their head. They kept battling and they learned that perseverance pays off.”

Waconia would shoot 31.8 percent from the floor (22 for 69) while Mound only attempted 46 shots but made 22 of them for a 47.8 percent clip. The Whitehawks won the rebounding battle 36-29 and Waconia prevailed in the turnover department with 19 compared to 27 by the Whitehawks. The ‘Cats also grabbed 21 steals in the game. Waconia was 8/14 at the free throw line in the game. M-W went 9/17 .

Waconia was led by strong performances from both Zieske and Johnson. Zieske poured in 20 points while picking up seven steals.

“She played really good I thought,” Johnson said. “She hustled the most on the team and made a lot of shots.”

Johnson added 17 points while tallying five steals.

“She played really well,” Zieske said. “Her court awareness has gotten much better. Her getting the steals and driving down the court and jump stopping, getting the passes out, attacking the basket, making the shots when she needs to – she does it all well.”

The playoff victory showcased another big step for the young Waconia team.

“Fans may focus on the physical skills, the passing, dribbling, shooting, etc. but sometimes the thing that holds a player or a team back is less physical than it is mental. Hopefully we have gotten over that mental hump.”

Waconia 37 Hutchinson 71

The No. 1 ranked Tigers of Hutchinson played like a team hungry for a return trip to the state tournament as they overwhelmed the Wildcats 71-37. The defensive pressure from the Tigers was smothering as they built a quick 9-0 lead before Waconia’s first time out.

“The Tigers are playing like a team on a mission,” Pierson said. “They got a taste of the state tournament last year and they really want to get back. Hopefully our players learned, from seeing first hand, the level of intensity and effort required to be a state tournament team.”

The Hutch lead grew to 18-0 before the ‘Cats would get their first basket. Led by eight seniors, Hutch built an insurmountable 50-18 lead at halftime.
While 10 of Waconia’s players scored in the game none of them reached double figures. The ‘Cats were just 12 for 42 from the floor 28.5 percent. The team also had 33 turnovers.

“They over whelmed us with their tremendous defensive pressure,” Pierson said. “Hutch is so quick, aggressive, and athletic. That is why they are ranked number one.”

Courtney Freeberg and Sidney Zieske both had seven rebounds. Alli Christians and Tess Johnson both grabbed three steals.
Waconia finishes the season at 9-19, but just as the Gopher men’s basketball team rebounded from an 8- 23 season a year ago to a 20 win season this year, the Wildcats have a chance for a terrific turnaround if they are willing to put in the time this offseason and improve.

“After the game we talked about how it’s not what happens to you that defines you; it’s how you respond to it,” Pierson said. “We have the potential to be a top flight team as early as next season, but we need our players to respond the right way to the setbacks they faced this season. That means putting in a lot of time to improve their skills this offseason and we’ve got to mature mentally as well.”

The dues have been paid. Now it’s time to return to the top of the conference and to the top 10 rankings in AAA.

“Returning to the top of the conference and the top 10 rankings is not out of reach,” Pierson said. “I’m hopeful this group will pursue that goal very vigorously over these next seven months.”