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Girls basketball: Detroit Lakes knocks off Alexandria in 2OT to clinch spot in Section 8-3A title game

The third-seeded Detroit Lakes girls basketball team blocked out the negative stereotypes surrounding their season to hand second-seeded Alexandria a 71-67 loss in double overtime on Saturday.

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The Detroit Lakes girls basketball team celebrates its 71-67 double-overtime win over Alexandria in the Section 8-3A semifinals on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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ALEXANDRIA – Detroit Lakes had been labeled as a team that couldn't score, was wildly inconsistent and lacked cohesiveness as a unit. Those narratives were put to bed on Saturday afternoon as the Lakers knocked off long-time rival Alexandria in the Section 8-3A semifinals in a double-overtime thriller.

The Lakers (13-12) had a flair for the dramatic at Alexandria Area High School. After Cardinals' (12-14) freshman Hadley Thul drained what looked like a dagger three-pointer with under 20 seconds left in regulation, Detroit Lakes head coach Rachel Johnson drew up a game-tying play for sophomore guard Helena Daggett. She launched a three to even the score at 53-53, sending the game to overtime.

"We talked about it during the timeout, and we just had to figure out a play to get a three-point shot up," Daggett said. "Any of the girls could've taken that shot. Honestly, I didn't think about it as the play was going on if I was going to shoot it there. I just blacked out and shot it, and it was incredible."

Johnson wanted Daggett to take the shot. With 6.5 seconds left in regulation, she gave the Lakers life.

"Helena didn't hesitate," Johnson said of Daggett. "We drew up that play for her, and she didn't hesitate to take the shot. She had ice running through her veins, which, if you know Helena, doesn't exist. She's the warmest, sweetest person out there. For her to knock down that shot was so awesome. She's worked so hard this season and has put in a lot of long nights of extra work."

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Alexandria's Allie Haabala kicked off the first overtime with a three-pointer. It sparked a 5-2 start to the extra session before Detroit Lakes' Abby Larson converted an acrobatic layup to pull the Lakers within a point. Ella Okeson converted a free throw on the Lakers' next possession to tie the game 58-58.

Detroit Lakes forced a turnover and got the ball back with 38.2 seconds left. Johnson drew up a play for sophomore Grace Gunderson in the post, but a defensive stand by the Cardinals' frontcourt gave them a shot to win the game with under 30 seconds left.

An errant shot ended up in the hands of Alexandria freshman Chloe Scholl, who was fouled on her way to the rim on a put-back attempt. She missed both free throws before the Lakers failed to convert a chance at the buzzer as the game slid into a second overtime.

"It really had to do with a lot of our discussions this week," Johnson said of the Lakers' mental fortitude. "Physically, the girls are at where they're at. We're not going to grow physically in a week. We had a lot of conversations about that mental toughness today. This is it. You either dig down and show everyone how much you want to win, or you're done. We gave them that very blunt reality, especially during those two overtimes. For them to perform and execute to get it done was fantastic."

The second overtime session came down to free-throw shooting. Detroit Lakes took its first lead since the midway point of the second half on a traditional three-point play from Daggett. It was the start of a 13-7 run to close out the game, including timely free throws from Larson and sophomores Ella Okeson and Elle Bettcher. Okeson iced the game by making the second of two shots from the line with under 10 seconds left.

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Detroit Lakes' Abby Larson throws a pass over four Alexandria defenders in the second half of the Lakers' 71-67 double-overtime win over the Caridnals on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"I can't even think straight right now," Daggett said. "I'm still in awe that this even happened. It was an incredible win. We all had to bring each other up when it looked bad and keep feeding off of each other. We were each other's boost of confidence out there. It was definitely a tough mental game, for sure."

"We were really excited to come into this gym and get a win after we had lost earlier in the year," Johnson said. "Now, we are really excited to continue our season. "I don't have my thesaurus on me, but whatever the most exciting, exuberant word could be, that's what everyone is feeling right now."

Alexandria beat Detroit Lakes 54-21 on Jan. 27. The Lakers made it a point to bring more intensity on the defensive end of the floor this time around. One point of emphasis was to limit Thul's production in the post. Gunderson did a nice job of competing with her physically and using the help of second and third defenders in the Lakers' zone defense.

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"Don't let No. 11 get the ball. That's basically it," Larson said of the Lakers' defensive approach. "We ran our zone with someone face-guarding her. She didn't get as many points as she normally does. It helps when you have a girl that can size up with her and is lengthy like that."

Detroit Lakes started the game on a 7-2 run on the back of Bettcher's post defense. She logged two blocks and three steals in the opening six minutes.

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Alexandria's Allie Haabala, right, throws a bounce pass past Detroit Lakes' Abby Larson in the first half of the Cardinals' 71-67 double-overtime loss on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Alexandria started to find a rhythm at the end of the first half. Ellie Heydt and Haabala gave the Cardinals a 20-15 lead before Okeson drained a three herself and added a pair of free throws in the final minute.

"We just wanted it more, and we put everything out on the floor," Larson said. "We just wanted it more than them. When they scored, it felt like it motivated us to get it back every time."

Larson took over offensively in the second half. She tied Bettcher with a game-high 17 points, with 13 of them coming in the last 26 minutes.

"They ended up face-guarding her a little bit," Johnson said of Larson. "As soon as I saw that, I just said that she's going to have to dig down deep. They weren't going to let her get anything for free. She stayed in control of our offense and did what we needed her to do on the other end. Having her step up and be the point guard we needed her to be was awesome."

The Cardinals began to pull ahead with 13 minutes left in the game. MaCee Linow and Kaia Emter each hit two of their combined five threes as part of an 8-0 run to take a 35-30 lead. Alexandria would lead until the final minute, where Gunderson tied the game with two free throws to set up Thul's three-pointer with 19 seconds left.

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Detroit Lakes' Jacee Hauser, left, boxes out Ellie Heydt on a free-throw attempt in the first half of Detroit Lakes' 71-67 double-overtime win over Alexandria on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"As soon as (Thul) made it, I was just like, 'Ugh, alright,'" Larson said. "There was definitely some doubt. We just had to do our best to get the look we wanted and play until the buzzer goes off."

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On Thursday, Detroit Lakes will head back to Alexandria Area High School for the Section 8-3A championship game against top-seeded Willmar. The Lakers fell to the Cardinals 54-26 on Jan. 14. Willmar beat No. 4 Rocori 48-41 on Saturday.

"I'm just so proud of them that they got to prove to all the naysayers tonight that the stereotypes are not who we are," Johnson said. "We are a very well-rounded team that likes to be together, likes to play defense, loves to play offense and play competitive basketball."

Playing for a happy bus ride home

Alexandria has put a sour taste in the mouth of Detroit Lakes athletes and fans during the 2021-22 school year. This season, the girls soccer and volleyball teams both lost to their Cardinal counterparts in the section semifinal round at Alexandria Area High School. On top of that, the Detroit Lakes football team fell in the Section 8-3A championship in Alexandria this season against Becker. It's safe to say Douglas County hasn't been the most beloved place to watch local sports for the Laker faithful.

The Detroit Lakes girls basketball team is filled with soccer and volleyball players who had the experience of giving an Alexandria team a good shot, but not being enough. It's what fueled the effort put forth on Saturday in the Lakers' most impressive performance of the season.

"We talked about it before the game," Larson said of Detroit Lakes' recent struggles against Alexandria in all sports. "We lost to Alex in the second round in the soccer playoffs, and so did the volleyball girls. It would've really sucked if we lost to them again in the second round. We were just playing to have a heck of a bus ride home."

"On the bus ride here, we all talked about how we didn't want to lose to Alex again after soccer and volleyball," Daggett said. "We all just pushed through it. Even with the double overtime and everything, we all had to work together. We finished."

Closing out a hard-fought game against a program like Alexandria goes against the aforementioned stereotypes.

"We talk about it a lot, but you hear through scuttlebutt that, 'They don't have a good offense,' 'They're not tough defensively,' or 'They don't work as a team,'" Johnson said. "All of those different things are things we hear about us. I told the girls, 'Tonight, you have to go show everyone that they're absolutely, 100% wrong.' This group of girls is so close. Yeah, sometimes these kids don't have great nights. They pick each other up and play so well together."

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Grace Gunderson runs out on the court during the starting lineups before Detroit Lakes' 71-67 win over Alexandria on Mar. 5, 2022 at Alexandria Area High School in double overtime.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Johnson is a second-year coach for the Lakers after taking over for Mike Labine. In two years, she's seen her teams knock off Alexandria twice. While the new face of the Detroit Lakes girls basketball program will receive a lot of credit for this feat, she was quick to dish the praise to the other pieces on her staff.

"My coaching staff is top-notch," Johnson said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better full coaching staff out there. (Josh) Bettcher's knowledge and really working with our scout team to go along with (David Hutchinson's) enthusiasm and his small points of emphasis are so big for us. Kris (Swenson) just rounds us out and is like the mom of the group that offers that ear for these girls to go to. My coaching staff is just phenomenal, and they support me and the girls so much."

Johnson and Alexandria head coach, Wendy Kohler, are on the opposite ends of their careers. Kohler has career victories, while Johnson hasn't even coached in 100 games. Yet, she was able to take a team without a senior on the active roster to a hostile environment to clinch her first-ever spot in a section title game.

"We beat Alexandria and coach (Wendy) Kohler one time last year, and it was absolutely surreal," Johnson said. "Today, when we won again, it was less surreal because this is the outcome myself, my coaching staff and my girls expected. To have that expectation become a reality says a lot. I give all of the credit to coach Kohler and her coaching staff because they're incredible. We had to put a whole team effort forward to beat them, and getting to play for a section championship is special."

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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