By MIKE ANDREW
FOR THE PIONEER
The Orono Lady Spartans continued their fun ride in the 2016-2017 season on March 9, with an exciting 66-62 win over conference and section rival Hutchinson. It was a game that matched Class AAA’s top two teams, the co-champions of the Wright County Conference East and players that knew one another as well as any two teams might. The game also had the added intensity of being a replay of last year’s section finals when Hutchinson upset the then top-ranked Spartans.
The game lived up to the hype, with ten lead changes and at least a dozen times when the score was tied. Neither team led by more than seven points throughout. Balance was the key to the game.
Hutchinson was paced by their three key leaders, Tori Wortz, McKenzie Rensch and Gabby Hahn, who scored 16, 17 and 16 points respectively.
For Orono, their scoring line included double figures from all five starters; juniors Anna Hughes and Madeline Loder joined seniors Natalie Smaron, Mattea Rice and Tori Andrew in scoring 12, 12, 12, 12 and 18 points respectively.
After Loder opened the game with a deep three-pointer, Orono pushed ahead to a slight lead at half, 34-31. During the first half, Hughes and Rice repeatedly made key plays against Hutchinson. Hughes also served as the primary disrupter at the top of Hutch’s offense, frequently sprinting from sideline to sideline to push the Tigers away from the basket.
Coach Glover made a couple of key adjustments for the Spartans that helped break the aggressive Hutchinson trapping defense, including having Smaron, the team’s 6’2” center, advance the ball frequently.
Hutchinson also adjusted and went on a 18-6 scoring run to go from five points behind to seven points ahead with just 4:18 left to play.
Just when it looked like the game might slip away, Orono’s balance took over.
First, there was a steal by Smaron, who fed the ball to Rice in the high post, who quickly dropped it down to Hughes in the short corner. Hughes calmly knocked in a twelve-footer to stop the bleeding and allow Orono to gather itself. Andrew fought off a double team and split a couple of other defenders to complete a powerful “And-One,” and then made two more free throws to pull within two. Next, Rice went up for one of her 11 Rebounds and stuck a put back to tie things at 60.
Rice grabbed the last of her rebounds at the other end and flipped it ahead to Loder, who slashed to the rim to put the Spartans ahead by two with 58 seconds to play.
During the stretch, the Spartans played solid defense and completely controlled the boards for the last six minutes of the game.
While Hutchinson pulled things back even at 62, Orono finished at the free throw line, with two more from Andrew and two from Smaron in the last 30 seconds.
In the end, Orono proved to be victorious, 66-62.
It was the most-balanced scoring line across five scorers for Orono this season. The symmetry was not lost on head coach Lavesa Glover-Verhagen.
“Our balance was the most impressive thing about our Section finals victory,” Glover-Verhagen said. “She has watched the progression from her young team all seasons and noted that the players are feeling comfortable in their roles at the right time.”
The Spartans now move to the Minnesota AAA State finals as the No. 1 seed, with games scheduled for March 14, 16 and the Championship game on Saturday, March 18 at Williams Arena.