A familiar rival stood between the Lady Panthers and a trip to state last week when the Rugby High girls’ basketball squad faced Velva for the Region 6 Championship in Minot.
As the No. 1 seeded Aggies began the first quarter of the game, it became clear to both sides that Velva had studied the Panthers well.
Seniors Maria Blessum and Anni Stier, go-to players for the Panthers, struggled as they found layups and two point shots blocked at most every attempt. Meanwhile, Aggies Hope Brewer and Rachel Mack put points on the board early, with Brewer completing a long shot for three points.
But the Panthers hadn’t come to the last night of regionals without backup plans.
5’10” sophomore Brooke Blessum opened the Panther offensive with a two point shot of her own and completed two free throws. Senior Karsyn Hager capitalized on her open status with a three pointer of her own, and after Anni Stier pushed past Aggie arms to complete a layup for two points, and after the Panthers capitalized on a missed Aggie shot, an open Hager scored two more points to tie the game at 12-12 at the end of the first quarter.
Spurred on by a large contingent of fans and boosters, Velva came roaring back onto the court in the second quarter, ready to fight. Two pointers from Hager and Brooke Blessum were not enough to counter another three pointer from Brewer, and scores from Mack and Emma Passa pulled the Aggies out ahead of the Panthers 23-19. But the Panther defense wore the Aggies down as the quarter ran out; twice when Velva had possession of the ball, they were unable to attempt a shot before the buzzer sounded.
As the second half began, the Panthers faced a four-point deficit.
The Panther offense came back to fight, led again by Brooke Blessum, who completed a two-pointer, and made good on three of four free throw attempts. Hager and Stier each scored on free throws, and the Panthers held the Aggies to four points in the entire third quarter.
The fight intensified as the Panthers began the fourth quarter with a 27-27 tie.
Aggie steals turned into Panther steals with rapid fire; players hit the floor, and referees called more fouls. Brooke Blessum, who suffered a bloody nose in the third quarter, managed two more two point shots to pull the Panthers out from behind. After many blocked and missed shots, the Panthers scored 2 more when Hager sank a bucket. Maria Blessum made good on two free throws, and the Panthers seemed bound for Grand Forks when they took the lead 35-29.
With just a minute left in regular play, the Aggies climbed back, with two shots from Mack tying the game 35-35.
The crowd reached a fever pitch as both teams fought for their lives for the four-minute overtime period.
The Panthers amped up their already supercharged defense, stealing the ball at every opportunity. Sophomore Sarah Blessum tied the game when she sank a free throw, and Stier and Hager couldn’t be stopped as they each sank two-pointers. Both Stier and Maria Blessum drew fouls and sank two free throw shots each, tuning out noisy Velva fans. As the clock ran down, Passa’s attempt at a three pointer fell short, and the Panthers earned a playoff slot in Grand Forks against #1 seed Kidder County.
“I expected nothing less,” Coach Jen Brossart told the Tribune. “This is unbelievable. I’ve been coaching for 12 years, and playing since I was in school, and this is the most unbelievable win in my career. I can easily say this for the seniors. What a spectator day. This is awesome.”
“I wish we would have gotten not as good of a team (for an opponent at state), but hopefully, we play as good as we did last night, and hopefully come out on top,” point leader Brooke Blessum reflected after the regionals.
Describing the team’s strategy against Velva, Brooke noted, “They (Velva) were really pressuring the seniors, so I knew that I would be open all the time, and I was, and they gave me the ball, and I scored off it.”
Teammate Hager described the Panthers’ push in overtime: “We had a lead by four and Velva came back, and I knew we had to do something. And then when we got those few steals, I was like ‘this is amazing, and this is what we’ve been working so hard for’. It was a great feeling.”
Hager said the Panthers looked forward to the challenge Kidder County would bring.
“I think we’re just going to go into practice and work our hardest, and the coaches are going to do their thing, where they find film on them, and we just need to relax and not worry about the fact they’re number one, and just go in there and play our best,” Hager said. “Because I think the defense we used last night, if we play that again, we’re unstoppable.”
Brooke Blessum topped the point totals against Velva with 19, while Hager scored 11 points. Stier scored 8 points, while Maria Blessum put 5 points on the board. Sarah Blessum scored 1 point for the game.
Velva’s Passa scored 14 points for the game; Brewer scored 12; Mack scored 9, while Madison Effertz scored 4 points. Kaitlyn Lund scored 3 points for the evening.
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