Troy Nelson was conflicted Friday night.
The Brainerd Warriors’ first-year head coach was upset his team lost a Central Lakes Conference game to the Alexandria Cardinals 67-60 at Brainerd High School.
On the other hand, Nelson thought his girls had a chance to beat a good Alexandria team and that made him happy.
“I told the girls in the meeting after the game that I’m so torn,” Nelson said. “I’m really down because I think we could have won. But the other side of me says we are almost there. That extra hard work that we’re doing is starting to pay off and it’s showing. It finally showed in a game against a really good team.”
The Warriors used a 13-2 run to close out the first half tied 36-36. Freshman Kylee Heurung came of the bench to score 10 points and Maria West scored 11 of her 15 points in the first half to help Brainerd overcome deficits of 16-9 and 32-20.
“We were just playing really hard defense and we shut down Christianson and that’s what we needed to do because she’s a really good scorer,” said Brainerd point guard Jenna Degen. “The key word that coach Nelson said before the game was poise. Usually when we play Alex we have a lot of turnovers and tonight we did not. We kind of created our own turnovers tonight.”
The Cardinals got 10 points from 6-foot-2 post Brooke Heggie and shot 90 percent (9-of-10) from the free throw line to build those first-half leads. Alexandria tried to exploit its height advantage, but shot just 35 percent from the field. Heggie was 4 of 11 in the paint.
“We knew they were going to be quite a bit bigger than us, but we really worked on fronting the post and we’ve been preaching help-side defense all year,” said Nelson. “We were there. Maria (West) went up and got the lob pass a couple of times. Jenna Degen was there to get in the way and stop their shots. They really bought into what we were teaching.”
Matching the intensity Brainerd closed out the first half with to start the second, the Warriors were able to grab a 45-42 lead with 14:14 left in the second half as Degen knocked down an old-fashioned 3-point play and Heurung scored her only basket of the second half followed by another Degen free throw.
But the Cardinals’ Amanda Christianson, who was held to six points in the first half, exploded for 10 in the second. A Christianson 3-pointer followed by another field goal handed the Cardinals a 47-45 edge it wouldn’t relinquish.
Brainerd tied it at 47 and 49, but a 7-0 run highlighted by back-to-back Kendall Kohler baskets was the difference. Kohler, a freshman, came off the bench to finish with 12 points. Heggie added four more points to close with 14.
“They got a couple of offensive rebounds against us,” said Nelson. “Down the stretch we gave up two off of free throws and you can’t do that if we’re going to win that game. Then we just missed a few shots. We had been making some shots and all of a sudden we missed a few. Plus, they’re a good team. They have some girls who can score.”
Degen led the Warriors with 18 points. West finished with 15 and Heurung 12. Brainerd shot just 30 percent in the second half and forced only six Cardinal turnovers compared to its 10.
“I was surprised at how well we played against them, but I knew we could do it,” said Degen. “I knew we had the potential. We’re a good team. We just don’t always play with a lot of energy and that’s what we focused on tonight.”
Alexandria 36 31 — 67
Brainerd 36 24 — 60
Emily Thul 4, Amanda Christianson 16, Kendall Kohler 12, Sara Bruzek 8, Karly Betterman 6, Jaylen Olson-Rodel 3, Brooke Heggie 14, Cheyenne Hendrickson 4. FG 24-64 (38 percent), FT 16-25 (64 percent). 3-point 5-13 (38 percent).
Jenna Degen 18, Katy Johnson 7, Maria West 15, Mikinze Boeder 7, Kylee Heurung 12. FG 17-49 (35 percent), FT 21-32 (66 percent). 3-point 5-13 (38 percent).