By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
Kirsten Heikkinen was having her best game of the season Feb. 5 in a matchup with No. 8 rated St. Michael-Albertville.
The senior guard from Rogers scored a season-high 11 points in a 52-51 loss against STMA. A controversial call allowed Heikkinen to win or tie the game at the free-throw line. With the Royals trailing by two, a foul called on a desperation shot in the closing seconds allowed her three free throws. With the crowd standing and yelling, she converted only 1-of-3 and the Royals fell one point short of pulling off the road upset.
“Lot of pressure for those shots,” said Rogers head coach Karlee Anderson. “I told her in afterward that it shouldn’t have come down to that. We missed a few late layups, didn’t hustle back on defense. It wasn’t just her free throws that cost us the game.”
The Knights and Royals spent most the game exchanging leads. Rogers led at the half 29-27. STMA came out pressing the issue in the second half and opened its biggest lead of 45-40 with about six minutes left in regulation.
Senior forward Court McClay scored five key points as part of a 7-0 run to give Rogers a 47-45 lead. STMA battled back to regain the lead, but twice the Royals had a chance in the last minute in regulation to win it. Sophomore guard Taylor Anderson’s 3-point attempt rimmed in and out and with 1.7 seconds left on the clock, a desperation shot from near half court by Heikkinen was called a foul – allowing her the three late free throws.
“I didn’t think it was a great call. It looked to me she was passing the ball instead of shooting it,” said STMA head coach Kent Hamre. “In the end, I’ll take the blame for that. I shouldn’t have put the game in the hands of a referee to make that call. I should have just relied on our defense to make the play.”
The win stretched STMA’s win streak to 10 games. Senior guard Natalie Van Wyhe said the team has not played its best basketball of late. Three games in a row the Knights have been in close battles at halftime.
“We started off slow again,” said Van Wyhe, who finished the game with 12 points. “We definitely need to pick it up to start off the games. We have a lot of pressure on our backs and we just need to settle down and play our game.”
One of the reasons for the slow start was the Royals game plan they executed to near perfection. In the first meeting this season, STMA blew out the Royals on their home court 54-37.
“We knew their zone was going to come out eventually and we struggle with that,” Coach Anderson said. “We knew we could go against them man-to-man, but it was the zone that was hurting us last time we played them and we worked on finding and attacking those open shots.”
Taylor Anderson and STMA sophomore guard Bobbi Brendefur led all scorers with 13 points. Sophomore center Marina Nowak added 11.
Brendefur and Van Wyhe hit key shots down the stretch to give the Knights a late lead.
“I had confidence in us,” said Van Wyhe, on watching the game come down to the final seconds. “I know we would have drawn up a play to get it down the court for that one second. But it was really nice to have the fans here and helping us out.”
The win streak was extended to 11 games with a 76-40 win Feb. 8 at Buffalo.
The Knights (19-3 overall) overcame a solid performance from Buffalo senior center Emily Spier, who finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds. But as usual, the Knights defense forced 32 turnovers and senior guard Jordan Hanson poured in a season-high 23 points to lead the Knights to a perfect 7-0 conference start.
They can clinch the Mississippi 8 title this Thursday night with a win at second-place Monticello (5-2).
“The Rogers win was a big swing game for us in the conference. It gave us a little bit of a cushion,” Hamre said. “We don’t want a cushion. We want to run the table.”
The Royals (14-9 overall, 4-3 M-8) dropped out of the conference title race with losses to STMA and a 76-65 double-overtime loss on Feb. 8 to Cambridge-Isanti.
The game with the Bluejackets was even from start to finish. The game was tied 26-26 at the half. Both team scored 34 points each in the second half and the game was tied 65-65 after the first overtime. The Royals engine ran out of gas in double overtime as they were outscored 11-0.
Brynn Liljander scored 38 points for the Jackets. Nowak scored 17, Anderson 15 and junior Lindsay Dorr had 14 for Rogers.
The Royals closed out a busy week of play with a 60-40 victory Feb. 9 over Duluth East. Dorr led the way with 17 points and Anderson and McClay each had 10. The Royals will be at Big Lake this Thursday at 7:15 p.m.