By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
The St. Michael-Albertville girls’ basketball team accomplished two of its three goals in a matter of a week’s time, the last goal – state.
Losses two weeks ago to both Monticello and Hopkins delayed any celebration of clinching the Mississippi 8 title. But with favorable matchups at home in the final week of the regular season, STMA was destined to achieve its pre-season goals.
A convincing 76-23 victory Feb. 19 over Big Lake clinched at least a tie for the conference title. It was also win number 20 on the season.
“Big Lake is having a down year and that was a good game to get us back on track,” said head coach Kent Hamre. “We executed well both on offense and defense. Overall, our decision making was really good that game.”
The Knights overpowered the Hornets and took a 40-12 advantage into the half. As it turned out, the 40 points would have been enough to win alone, as Big Lake finished with 23 total points.
Senior guard Natalie Van Wyhe led the charge with 19 points, five assists and six steals. Van Wyhe had struggled in recent games to reach her 10.5 scoring average, but Hamre said he has total faith in his all-conference captain.
“Natalie’s not getting the points that I’m sure she would like to get,” Hamre said. “But she does so many things well for us. She finds so many open people and really controls the game well.”
Senior guard Makenzie Bebo is another one of those players, whose scoring average of 6.5 points doesn’t stick out, but she is one of nine girls to reach 10 points or more this season and Bebo is one of the best defenders on the team.
Bebo said the strength of the team is depth and none of the girls pay too much attention to their personal stats.
“It’s reassuring to know we have other people that can step up,” Bebo said. “We are so deep and playing time is just something we live with. It’s nice we can trust someone to go out and do the job.”
While the Big Lake win assured the Knights of a 20-win season and a conference title, the final regular season game of the year with Cambridge-Isanti still had some meaning.
Three nights after saluting Van Wyhe, Bebo, Nicole Westrum, Jordan Hansen, Bre Grube and Hallie Williams for senior night, it was a junior and a freshman stealing the show, in a 69-55 win Feb. 22 over the Bluejackets.
Junior Erin Autio scored 23 points and finished with five rebounds. Freshman Sydney Tracy had 14 points. Both Van Wyhe and Bebo finished with eight.
“Autio has really been shooting well of late from the field,” Hamre said. “Many kids lead us in scoring any given night and Erin has been playing real well for us down the stretch.”
Autio leads the team this season with five double-doubles.
The Knights began section play Tuesday night (results unavailable) as the top seed against No. 8 seed Brainerd. STMA posted a perfect 9-0 record against Section 8-4A teams this season, including two wins each against No. 2 seed Rogers and No. 5 seed Buffalo.
Winners of Tuesday’s games advance to the semifinal round this Saturday night at St. Cloud State’s Halenbeck Hall. The section championship game will be played March 8 at St. John’s University at 6 p.m. in Collegeville.
The Knights are hoping to make it back to state for a second consecutive year and for the fifth time in eight years under Hamre.
“We have to have an open mind no matter who the opponent is,” Bebo said. “From here, it’s one step at a time. We can’t take any team lightly.”