For the Bangor High School girls basketball team in its WIAA Division 5 sectional final on Saturday afternoon, patience paid off.
After struggling to find any real rhythm offensively in the first half, the Cardinals moved the ball around the perimeter, battled for every rebound, and knocked down enough free throws to top River Ridge 62-54 in front of nearly 1,000 fans at the Mark Sutton Memorial Gymnasium, sending Bangor to the WIAA state tournament for the third time in four seasons.
The Cardinals (25-1) trailed 29-26 at halftime, with the Timberwolves (23-3) swarming Bangor senior Karsen Kershner in the post and forcing 11 first half turnovers, but the Cardinals were able to swing the ball, get the looks at the basket they wanted, and started the second half on a 20-7 run that gave Bangor the breathing room it needed.
“We just had to make an adjustment at halftime,” said Bangor coach Merlin Jones. “I didn’t think our spacing was where it needed to be to get those gaps, and in the second half, we stretched out the floor higher and wider to create a lot more isolation and clear out the post area.”
The Cardinals, ranked third in Division 5 by the Associated Press, swung the ball from side to side, often skipping passes from one side of the court to the other to free up Kershner in the post. The six-foot Kershner scored 10 of her 16 points in the second half, and brought down 17 rebounds as well. Even if Bangor couldn’t get the ball inside, the faster pace helped open driving lanes for the likes of junior Haley Jones, who led Cardinals players with 19 points.
“We just wanted to space out and get backdoor cuts,” said Haley Jones. “We knew that we could create gaps, and that they would overplay. Our goal was to spread it out and get backside (lay-ups).”
Bangor jumped out to a 25-17 lead with 7:05 remaining in the first half, but eighth-ranked River Ridge closed the half on a 12-1 run thanks in large part to the aggressive play of senior Skylar White, who capped the run with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to send the Timberwolves into the locker room with the lead. White finished with a game-high 27 points for River Ridge.
“We came out and knew what they were going to do, but we didn’t execute 100 percent and dug ourselves into a little hole there,” said Merlin Jones.
Junior Megan Miedema scored the opening four points of the second half to give the Cardinals a 30-29 advantage with 16:20 to play, a lead that Bangor would not surrender the rest of the game. Miedema finished with 13 points for the Cardinals, while sophomores Taylor Jacobson and Aliyah Langrehr each added seven points.
“We knew that we’ve got to do this now. It’s go time, now or never,” Kershner said of the second-half adjustments. “This has been our goal from the beginning. Coming out strong and executing, that’s what did it for us.”
The Cardinals will be looking to claim the school’s second gold ball in three years, and third state title overall, after falling in the regional final a season ago.
A return to Green Bay was by no means a certainty, after losing an incredible amount of talent over the past two seasons, but Merlin Jones simply credited the hard work that the Cardinals put in.
“They put a ton of effort into their season, and really showed what they are capable of,” said Jones. “It’s a great group of kids that played together all season long. They’ve been able to overcome everything.”
After largely being a spectator in past trips to the Resch Center, Kershner is excited to be on the center stage.
“For me, it’s so great. I was a part of the team, but I wasn’t on the court,” said Kershner. “It feels great to rebuild it. We’ve tried hard in practice, and every game. We never forgot what our goal was and we kept working towards it.”
In this Series
WIAA girls basketball: Aquinas, Melrose-Mindoro, Bangor, Arcadia head to state; Onalaska just misses out
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