When girls' basketball tournaments started last week the Brainerd lakes area had 12 teams competing for a trip to state.
There is only one left as the 21-4 Pine River-Backus Tigers jump against the 14-13 Esko Eskomos 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the Section 7AA semifinals.
The Tigers, a No. 2 seed in the West Subsection, topped Crosby-Ironton in the first round 63-36 and Saturday eliminated Chisholm 46-37 to advance to the semifinals.
Esko, the No. 4 seed in the East Subsection, topped fifth-seeded Mesabi East 56-49 in the first round before knocking off top-seeded Two Harbors 57-47.
In that game, Esko's Jessica Heehn scored 17 points, 10 more than her season average. Ashley Hanson finished with 15 and Janine Kuklis scored 11.
Kuklis, a 6-foot-1 junior, averaged 12.6 points a game and totaled 339 for the season. That's a far cry from the Tigers' leading scorer, Sarah Laposky.
The 5-foot-7 senior is the second-leading scorer in the state with an average of 26.2 points. Laposky has never been held under double digits this season and has scored less than 25 points only eight times.
Of those 25 games, she's reached 30 points or more 10 times. In her last four games she's scored 30, 34, 31 and 28.
"We see her experience and her poise," said Tigers coach Tom Lupella. "Being a senior has helped her to be consistent. She's been there when we needed her. She's been able to put her points in."
Laposky needs only 24 points to surpass Dina Kangas as the school's career scoring leader. Laposky has 1,748 points in her four-year career.
As a team, PR-B has won eight in a row, including a 52-44 win over West Subsection top seed Pequot Lakes Jan. 30. The Tigers have also won 16 of their last 17 games.
It may be accurate to say the Tigers are peaking at the right time.
"If we maintain our poise and play good defense I feel we have a shot at beating Esko," said Lupella. "That's probably the biggest thing with us is our confidence. We need to be patient."
One area where Esko does pose a threat is size. Along with Kuklis, Hanson is 6-foot. Allison Ohms, the Eskomos' third-leading scorer, is a 5-9 forward, Kristin Kunz is a 5-8 junior guard.
"We probably won't match up against them very well," said Lupella. "We have to come out after them and extend their offense. We need to put pressure on them on the outside. They're used to seeing a lot of zone defense. They don't see a lot of man (defense), and we're hoping that might intimidate them a little bit."
While the Tigers lack height, they make up for it with a mixture of crafty veterans and youthful energy.
Seniors Whitney Rollins and Laposky have been instrumental in the Tigers' success. Rollins is averaging 7.7 points and junior Meg Tabaka is knocking in 7.4 a game.
Sophomore Brittany Nelson (8.1 points), Brooke Rollins (8.0 points) and eighth-grader Chelsa Schwegel have given the Tigers a nice blend of scoring and defense.
Add in Alicia Finch, who's finally healthy, and the Tigers have a complete team.
"Having two senior starters and two on the bench definitely helps us out," Lupella said. "They keep their cool and it's obviously going to help us. We haven't been at this level before though. I think the last time we were in the semifinals was back in the 1980s with Dina Kangas.
"That's a factor too. We haven't had that tournament experience. We didn't have a good first half Saturday but after we settled down we played well enough to win."
With a 14-13 record, and a No. 4 seed, nobody, including Lupella, expected Esko to get this far. That could also be a concern as the Eskomos are playing their best basketball in the postseason.
Before the start of the tournament Esko had lost five of its last six games. The Eskomos are averaging 50.2 points a game while giving up 47.3. They need to play better defense to stop PR-B, which is averaging 60.4.
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