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The Bangor High School girls basketball team has been utilizing the offensive talents of senior Emma Wittmershaus for the majority of her career.

She’s the program’s all-time leading scorer for a reason.

But it was the 6-foot-2 forward’s defense that sparked the Cardinals after a slow start to the second half during Saturday’s WIAA Division 5 sectional final. Wittmershaus and her teammates shut down Shullsburg’s attack over the final eight minutes to secure a 55-41 victory in front of an estimated crowd of 1,100 at Central’s Mark Sutton Gymnasium.

The win sends Bangor (24-3) back to the state tournament for the second consecutive season, while the Miners end their year 21-6. The Cardinals — ranked fourth in Division 5 in the final Associated Press poll of the season — will learn their seed and opponent at the state tournament on Sunday; their semifinal will either be at 9:05 or 10:45 a.m. at the Resch Center in Green Bay.

Shullsburg seized momentum Saturday after trailing by five points at halftime, starting the second half on an 8-0 run to go up 29-26. Bangor missed five baskets to start the half, with four of them coming right at the rim.

Things started to turn around when Wittmershaus hit a jumper, and then answered a 3-pointer from Miners senior Nicole Teutschmann with a 3 of her own. Shullsburg led 36-33 before the Cardinals were able to take over for good.

Wittmershaus — a NCAA Division I UW-Milwaukee recruit — began fronting the Miners’ 6-foot-2 center, Brianna Leahy.

The pair mirrored each other around the court Saturday, with each blocking two of the other’s shots in the first half. When Wittmershaus began to deny Leahy’s teammates an avenue to get her the ball however, momentum swung heavily toward the Cardinals.

“She’s one of their main offensive players and they run their offense around her,” said Wittershaus, who scored a game-high 23 points to bring her career total to 1,407. “We did a really good job on the outside and contributed on defense.”

Wittmershaus tipped away three lob passes intended for Leahy, and the Bangor backcourt snatched the loose balls and took them for fast-break chance. The clamp down on Leahy (eight points) and Teutschmann — who had 15 points on five 3-pointers, but didn’t score in the final 15 minutes — propelled an 11-0 run that put Bangor ahead for good.

The Cardinals didn’t allow a field goal for a 7-plus-minute stretch, and Schullsburg scored only one basket and three free throws over the final eight minutes.

“I think the biggest thing we did was turn up our intensity a little bit. We covered the ball a little bit harder,” Bangor coach Merlin Jones said. “We tried to cover up Brianna Leahy, and probably sent too much help to her early. We didn’t give Emma the credit she needed and deserved to cover her straight up, one-on-one.

“Once we started doing that, we made it tough on her.”

Bangor applied full-court pressure in key moments to produce easy baskets. An errant pass out of a frontcourt double-team went straight to Wittmershaus for an easy layup in the final minute of the first half, and senior Jaclynn Freit converted a layup after a Wittmershaus tipped a pass during the crucial second-half run.

Freit — who made a 25-foot 3-pointer before half to give Bangor a 26-21 lead at the break — said those transition points were key to getting the Cardinals rolling.

“We have a great defense,” she said. “It really helped us with our momentum, because we needed to get up. The whole first half we felt like we were slow, and just not in our normal game. Once we started pressuring, we felt more comfortable with where we were.”

Freit finished with nine points, while junior Ashlie Lockington — who helped bring the Cardinals out of their early-second-half funk with a couple of nifty dribble moves to the basket for layups — had seven points.

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Colten Bartholomew is a reporter and columnist for River Valley Media Group. Colten is the college sports coordinator for the La Crosse Tribune.