By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
If you take away the Lake Conference, the St. Michael-Albertville girls’ basketball team was having a perfect season prior to its Feb. 14 matchup at Monticello.
Coming into the Mississippi 8 battle with the Magic, the Knights held a 19-3 overall record, with all three losses against Lake Conference foes.
That pattern changed after the Knights dropped a 49-48 Valentine’s Day matchup with the Magic. In the process, the Knights failed on an opportunity to clinch the conference title on Monticello’s home floor. It also ended their season-high 11-game winning streak.
“We should have beat Monticello,” said STMA junior Erin Autio, who finished the day with 14 points and 10 rebounds against the Magic (20-4 overall, 6-2 conference). “It was hard to see us lose to a team we should have won.”
The Knights held a late lead of 47-44, but Monticello’s three-headed monster of Grace Sawatzke, Gabby Laimer and Alyssa Lentner helped score five unanswered points and the Magic built a late 49-47 advantage. A late free throw cut the lead to one, but with less than a second left on the clock the Knights couldn’t find the equalizer.
“Monticello was prepared for us,” said STMA head coach Kent Hamre. “They put us in an uncomfort zone. After the Rogers game, you would think maybe we learned to play 36 minutes and we kind of got burned by it by not being ready to play against Monticello.”
Sophomore Bobbi Brendefur scored 19 points in a losing effort for the Knights. Her scoring ability was desperately missed in the team’s next matchup Feb. 16 at No. 2 ranked Hopkins.
A knee injury left the Knights without their second leading scorer. Brendefur is tied with Autio, averaging 9.6 points per game. STMA’s leading scorer Natalie Van Wyhe, a senior is scoring 10.2 ppg and she and the rest her teammates had the dubious task of trying to stop Hopkins All-American forward Nia Coffey.
Prior to the start of the game last Saturday, Coffey – a Northwestern recruit – was honored after being named to the McDonalds All-American Team. The daughter of former University of Minnesota forward Richard Coffey, arguably is the most athletic player the Knights have ever faced.
The Knights actually held Coffey in check on the scoreboard. The senior was held to 14 points – four points under her season average. But her overall game is what impressed both Hamre and the Knights as she helped lead the Royals to a 79-50 victory.
Coffey finished with 12 rebounds, three steals and six blocked shots, all of which came in the paint.
“I’ve not seen anybody jump out of the gym like that since Joe Carpenter played for our boy’s,” Hamre said. “The Hopkins athletic director told me before the game that she could probably play for the boy’s team. She’s amazing. It’s too bad she isn’t coming to the Gophers.”
The Knights were taken out of the game from the get-go. An early 10-1 deficit was all the Royals needed, as STMA never could muster a full rally. The lone bright spot was Autio, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. It was her second consecutive double-double.
“We get caught looking at (Coffey) at times saying to ourselves, ‘Ahh, she’s so good’,” Autio said. “She can jump and it’s hard to shoot from the field because they will just get swatted. We tried.”
The Knights finished the season going 0-4 versus Lake Conference teams and brought their overall record to 19-5. They need one more conference win to clinch at least a tie for the conference title.
They had that chance at home last Tuesday night when they hosted Big Lake (results not available). Friday night they can clinch the conference outright when they play their last regular season game hosting Cambridge-Isanti at 7:15 p.m.
“The spirits are still up,” Hamre said. “Their goals are still there. A 20-win season and winning the conference is something we can control.”