Girls basketball: Detroit Lakes stuns top-seeded Willmar to clinch first state berth since 2009
The Detroit Lakes girls basketball team played spoiler against a senior-heavy Willmar team in the Section 8-3A championship.
ALEXANDRIA – Willmar's Ellary Lang took a shot that clanked off the front of the rim and the top of the backboard before falling to the floor with no time left on the clock. It was a moment that nobody except for 18 players, four coaches and a handful of parents from Detroit Lakes thought would happen before Thursday night.
The third-seeded Lakers (14-12) have turned the unexpected into their reality with a 46-43 upset win over the top-seeded Cardinals (19-9) to win the Section 8-3A championship. For the first time since the 2008-09 season, Detroit Lakes is headed to the state tournament.
"I can't really describe it, and I can't get over how awesome that was," junior Jacee Hauser said. "I love this amazing group of girls I get to play with. So many young girls stepped up this year to make this happen. I'm so proud of them."
Things couldn't have started any worse for the Lakers at Alexandria Area High School. An early shooting slump and a 13-0 run from Willmar had Detroit Lakes down 11 points midway through the first half. Cardinals' senior Ella Shinn put up six points to give Willmar a 16-5 lead.
The lead grew to 12 points before the Lakers closed the gap. Junior Abby Larson hit a three before sophomore Grace Gunderson drove to the rim to cap off an 8-0 before halftime. Willmar held a 21-17 advantage after the first 18 minutes.
"I think we were all feeling down when we were down by that much," Larson said. "Something just clicked, and we were like, 'guys, we have to go, or this is the end of our season.' We put all this work in, so we weren't going to go out like that. We started to come back, and that's when they started turning over the ball. It was just motivating to see that we could do it."
Much like Saturday's 71-65 double-overtime semifinal win over second-seeded Alexandria, the Lakers' run before the half allowed them to settle in and play with confidence to open the second frame. Detroit Lakes took its first lead since the game's opening minutes on a three from sophomore Ella Okeson. She finished with nine points off the bench.
"That's what you want your sixth man to be," Detroit Lakes head coach Rachel Johnson said of Okeson. "She's that spark plug and hurricane that Ella is. To have her be able to come in ready to rip and do those things she has to do for us to win is great."
The lead was short-lived as Willmar's Brielle Ogdahl and Lange each hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
When the Lakers needed a bucket, they looked to their junior captain. Hauser had nine points on the night, with all of them coming in the second half from three-point range. Her first two leads erased the pair of Willmar threes midway through the first half.
Hauser sat on the bench for most of the two overtime periods in the semifinals despite playing crucial minutes all season long. Alexandria presented an awkward matchup for Hauser and Ellie Lunde, which led Johnson to put one of her starters on the bench in the extra sessions.
"Against Alex, she was definitely frustrated. More than anything, the reason she didn't get as many minutes as she normally does was because it was a bad matchup for her," Johnson said of Hauser. "The same can be said for Ellie Lunde. They both know what their roles are, and they came back to practice in fine spirits, especially Jacee. She was a leader on the court tonight. She hit her nine points at opportune and necessary times."
Being the consummate leader she is, Huaser bounced back when her team needed her.
"I doubt myself easily," Hauser said. "These girls are so awesome at building me up when I get down. I knew that me being on the bench in those overtimes (against Alexandria) was what was best for the team for the matchup. Yeah, you want to be out there, and it's frustrating when you're not, but it's what was best for this team. I'm glad I got to do my part tonight and add to this game."
While her timely three-point shooting erupted an excited Detroit Lakes contingent, her contributions on the defensive end of the floor were even more important. Hauser had seven blocks and cleaned up on the glass after Willmar dominated Detroit Lakes in rebounding during the first half.
"She was a beast on the boards again too," Johnson said of Hauser defensively. "We can't afford her not to play in these situations because of her rebounding and her defense. She was just a beast."
Another emotional junior leader found herself in unfamiliar territory midway through the second half. Larson picked up her fourth foul with just over 10 minutes left. She returned to the game less than four minutes later and played the final 6:39 without a foul to give.
"I was proud of her because she was sick and puking on the bus ride here," Johnson said of Larson. "She said she felt better, so that was a relief. She felt good in the shoot-around and in warmups. We just talked about how this is a mental game at this point. She had a bit of a rough start in the first half, but when it came down to needing to execute, she did it. She just really stepped up when he needed her to. She's so integral to everything we do."
"I just had to make sure I wasn't reacting to anything and staying away from anything that'll get me in trouble," Larson said on playing with four fouls. "I just needed to stay poised and keep my emotions in check."
Willmar and Detroit Lakes traded punches in what felt like a heavyweight bout. Willmar took a 43-41 lead with 3:37 left on a feed from Samantha Christoffer to Shinn in the post. It was the last time the Cardinals scored during the 2021-22 season.
Larson gave Detroit Lakes the lead back with a three-pointer with 2:33 to play. The possession chewed over a minute off the clock before the Lakers regained a one-point lead. From there, Detroit Lakes closed out a section championship with its defense.
Okeson and Gunderson each hit a free throw to give the Lakers a three-point lead–their largest of the game. Willmar had three shots to tie in the final 20 seconds but couldn't get one to go. The Lakers were stormed by an exuberant student section waiting to celebrate the team's first section championship in 13 years.
"I couldn't help but cry seeing all of those people here supporting us and caring about what we did," Hauser said. "All of those people came here for us, and we didn't let them down. I'm just in awe…I don't know how else to describe it. I can't even feel emotions because I can't even comprehend what just happened. I can't believe this. I don't think I'm going to sleep tonight."
Relishing in the underdog role
Alexandria has dominated Section 8-3A for years. After the state-wide realignment this offseason and seeing a large Alexandria senior class lost to graduation, the 8-3A crown was Willmar's to lose. Yet Detroit Lakes beat both of them in back-to-back games without a senior on the floor.
The "doubt" surrounding the Detroit Lakes basketball team isn't necessarily a belief in a lack of talent but more about recognizing what Alexandria and Willmar did to the Lakers this season. Willmar beat Detroit Lakes 54-26 on Jan. 7 before Alexandria pulled away to a 54-41 win on Jan. 27. Willmar was also the 15th-ranked team in Class 3-A, according to MN Basketball News.
"This was an upset–like we actually pulled off an upset," Hauser said. "Coming into this, we didn't feel any pressure. All of the pressure was on Wilmar. I think that helped us even more because we didn't feel the pressure of being favored to win."
The 2021-22 season wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for the Lakers either. A 1-7 start to the campaign forced a young team to face the harsh reality that something needed to change before it was too late.
"I think our chemistry just clicked," Hauser said of overcoming a slow start to the season. "We had a lot of people doubting us, and we just got sick of it. We were frustrated with it. Once we all started working together, things just got really good. I'm going to be honest. When we were 1-7, I don't think any of us thought we'd be doing this tonight. I'm just so proud of everyone."
Despite winning five of its last six games during the regular season, the people giving Detroit Lakes a shot to cut down the nets were few and far between.
"It completely fuels us," Johnson said on being the underdog. "These girls thrive in this hostile environment. It all comes down to us. They completely buy into what the coaches have said all season. Even this last week, we've been talking about what's going to happen when we won instead of if we won. It wasn't cocky, but instead more manifesting that confidence."
All bets are off for the Class 3-A state tournament starting on Wednesday from the Matrui Pavilion at the University of Minnesota. The Lakers likely won't be seeded heading into the state quarterfinals, but that won't bother a group of girls that's been told they wouldn't be there in the first place.
"I tell these girls all the time that the people doubting us motivates us," Hauser said. It's just what happens. It's up to us to step it up and prove to people that we're good enough. I'm thankful for every single person that doubted us because we wouldn't be standing here today without them. We played to prove them wrong, and we did."