WHS girls basketball season ends in Section 2AAA playoff loss to Mankato East

Feb. 29—MANKATO — The Worthington High School girls basketball team saw its season come to an end in the Section 2AAA playoffs Wednesday night in an 88-36 loss to Mankato East.

The Trojans entered the matchup on a two game win streak to end the regular season and were the No. 6 seed in the section tournament. But they were facing a tough task ahead in a third seeded Mankato East team ranked ninth in Class AAA in QRF.

With the win, the Cougars (18-9) move on to the semifinals Saturday against No. 2 seed Marshall.

"We just didn't execute very well," said Trojans head coach CJ Nelson. "Offensively, we couldn't kind of get into some of our sets that we wanted to and (Mankato East) did a good job defensively not letting us get there and then we got frustrated, so you know, hats off to them."

The Cougars were lethal with their 3-point shooting throughout the game, connecting on 15 of them, and they scored a lot of points in transition off of WHS turnovers.

But the first few minutes were a bit slow going, with Mankato East only holding a 2-0 lead nearly five minutes in. During that stretch, the Trojans were able to force multiple turnovers on defense. Shortly after that, WHS junior Grace Barber was fouled on a 3-point attempt, sending her to the free throw line. She sank all three of her free throws to give her team a 3-2 lead. That would be Worthington's only lead of the night.

The Cougars stormed ahead after that, going on a 26-2 run, highlighted by a string of treys, over the next five minutes to emphatically set the tone.

"Mankato East is a good team, I think in the QRF, they're ranked in the top 10 in the state, so we knew tonight was gonna be another tough night," Nelson said. "Our section is really tough, so just competing against the top teams in our section, we just got to continue to work and get better, I guess, is the best way to put it."

From there, Mankato East continued to stretch the lead as it eventually reached 30 points at 43-12 with just under three minutes left in the first half. Before the half was over, Mankato East pushed the lead to 40 points with under 30 seconds left.

Leading the charge in the first half for the Cougars were Ellie Edberg and Macy Birkholz. Edgerg scored 20 points in the first half and hit four 3-pointers. She wound up with 35 points in the game. Birkholz scored 25 in the first half and connected on six treys, one of which coming at the buzzer to make the halftime score 57-16. She totaled 30 in the game.

"Honestly, we kind of knew we had to take care of (Edberg) and (Birkholz) and we didn't do a very good job of that tonight," Nelson said. "They kind of lit us up so that really hurt us. We didn't do a very good job with that game plan and hats off to them again, they knocked down a lot of shots. That's part of being a good team."

The Cougars continued to maintain their high level of play in the second half as the final nine minutes of the half were on a running clock.

The loss marks the end of the high school basketball careers of six senior Trojans. In the game's final seconds, Nelson subbed five of them — Madison Beckmann, Regan Schaefer, Newyouman Gora, Janessa Hamann and Phamananewyou Gora — into the game for one final moment on the court together.

"They've all been a part of this program for a long time," Nelson said. You know, Maddie's been almost starting since she's a freshman, so to lose her and her athleticism is a huge loss, the (Gora) twins bring a whole different side of things and Janessa and Regan are just, they're good kids. So to lose good kids in your program makes things difficult, so we got to try and replace those and we can do it. There's other kids that can step up and overall, we have a great team."

Barber led the Trojans in scoring with 10 points, New Gora had five, Beckmann, Schaefer, Jayden Spartz and Pham Gora each had four, Alaina Feit had three and Hamann had two.

Worthington's season ends with an 8-19 record, an improvement over the team's 4-22 record the previous season. Among those eight wins included big wins over Big South Conference rivals like Luverne and Jackson County Central (twice).

"It's been a great group," Nelson said. "Our seniors are tremendous people and I'm going to miss them a lot. And we have some juniors that are going to step up for us next year, I know. Grace Barber had a fantastic game today, so I am super excited to see what she can do for us next year. But overall, this was a great year for us and hopefully we can just continue to look to grow and build and get better as a team."

Mankato East 57 31 — 88

Worthington 16 20 — 36