Pequot Lakes senior forward Heather Neznik admits to being a little frightened of opposing front lines who tower over her and her Patriot teammates.
But after the 5-foot-11 Neznik scored 18 points against Roseau, which had a front line of 6-2, 6-0 and 5-11, in a 62-54 victory in the quarterfinals of the Class AA state girls' basketball quarterfinals Tuesday, she doesn't appear to be shaking with fear.
And neither are her teammates. The Patriots have steamrolled through big teams, little teams and any in between as they have compiled a 27-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in Class AA.
Neznik's play has also propelled Pequot Lakes to its first-ever state semifinal game in which it will battle Sibley East at 9 p.m. Friday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Wolverines, who feature 6-4 Tera Bjorklund and 6-0 Hali McClelland, defeated Pierz 44-43 Tuesday to advance.
"It's always scary going against a team when they're a lot bigger," said Neznik, who is second on the team averaging 17 points a game. "But you have to go up into them a lot stronger. "I usually try to shoot higher to get over their arms and jump higher when I take a jump shot over the middle."
Bjorklund, who has signed to play at the University of Colorado next season, averages 20 points a game, while McClelland averages 15.
The two combined for only 22 points against Pierz. The Pioneers used a 2-3 zone and always had a defender in front of Bjorklund and usually one behind as well.
The Patriots will use a similar approach.
"We're going to double- and triple-team their big girls," Pequot Lakes coach Bill Larson said. "We'll play man-to-man which has been characteristic of our team all year. By putting good guard pressure out front, we're going to try to make the inlet to (Bjorklund) tougher.
"Our guards are playing really well right now and they will have to make the pass tougher and make them lob it. We're going to send three or four people to the boards and push the ball up the floor."
Larson said he's impressed from what little he's seen of Bjorklund.
"They don't make them like that usually," he said. "We've seen some good size but it's when you add the athletic ability that really makes it tough. She moves well around the basket. Post play is their strength and rebounding is going to be a strong point of their game."
Julie Redebaugh, a 6-0 sophomore forward, will receive the assignment of trying to stop Bjorklund.
"We're going to front her and play our game on defense," Neznik said. "Just like against Roseau, if they're going to the free-throw line we'll front that. We'll also front the low post and then collapse down like we usually do when the post gets the ball."
If Sibley East has the height advantage up front, Pequot Lakes more than makes up for it in the backcourt. The Patriots' three starting guards are 5-9 Joan Ebnet, 5-7 Brianna Biebighauser and 5-8 Jeanna Baratto, while the Wolverines start two guards under 5-5.
That size advantage should help on the boards and should help the Patriots run their fast break.
"We will try to figure out how they run the floor," Larson said. "We know we can so we're going to try to run a little bit.
"Brianna has a great outside shot. She's going to get a couple off shooting over the guards. We'll set a couple of picks and hopefully free her up."
Said Neznik: "Having taller guards will help, especially with the guards rebounding. They can just go with it and get down the floor quicker."
Team play has also been key in recent weeks for Pequot. The Patriots recorded only nine turnovers, had 17 assists and posted four double-figure scorers against Roseau.
"I believe strongly that we're playing our best right now," Larson said. "We peaked at the right times. We had a little lull in the middle of season with injuries and sickness. We're healthy now and everybody's looking for each other. We had four in double figures last game so that shows just how really unselfish of a game we're playing."
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