By Matt Dahlseid
MARSHALL - A brilliant first half put Wabasso in firm control, then a key 9-0 run late in the second half kept a surging Southwest Minnesota Christian team at bay as the Rabbits grasped a 76-65 victory Friday in the Section 3A-South girls' basketball tournament championship game.
Wabasso 6-foot forward Chelsey Guetter scored a game-high 26 points for the Rabbits and made her first three, 3-point attempts in the first half as her squad bolted ahead to a 43-26 lead at the break. Guard Larissa Rohlik added 17 points in the game, connecting on 5 of 6 3-point attempts.
SWC (22-5 overall), which had won 18 straight games entering the contest, mounted a furious comeback in the second half, using a 16-2 run to cut the lead to 62-56 with just over six minutes remaining.
Wabasso (26-2) answered with a 9-0 run, with Guetter converting on a three-point play and scoring five points during the stretch, to push the lead back to double figures on its way to capturing its 18th straight victory and its first sub-section title since the program won the state championship in 2004.
Wabasso head coach Neil Dolan was expecting a run from the Eagles, and his players stepped up when they had to in their biggest game of the season to date.
"The girls answered. We've been in that situation the last four or five weeks of the season and the girls have really responded," said Dolan, whose team will face 3A-North champion Minneota at 5 p.m. next Friday at SMSU. "That's been the strength of these girls right now is their resiliency. They take a punch and then they come back."
The Rabbits were the ones throwing the punches in the first half, draining shot after shot while frustrating the Eagles with their full-court pressure. Consecutive 3-pointers by Rohlik, Guetter and Rohlik again gave Wabasso a 16-6 lead seven minutes into the game and the Rabbits kept building their advantage from there.
Usually high school teams take time to adjust to the sight lines when they play inside the wide-open R/A Facility. The Rabbits didn't need any time at all.
"We came out hitting shots. We just couldn't miss," Guetter said.
Guetter scored 13 points in the first half before picking up her third foul with 6:38 remaining. Without her on the court, the Rabbits still managed to add to their lead as other players like Rohlik, Morgan Frank and Kimberly Frank knocked down shot after shot to put Wabasso up 17 at the break.
After committing 16 first-half turnovers, SWC did a better job handling Wabasso's pressure in the second half and started knocking down shots with more consistency. Wabasso stayed hot, too, as Rohlik hit two 3s and Kimberly Frank hit another in a span of 1:30 to give Wabasso a 60-40 lead.
Later, Guetter had a shot in the paint, then scored on a three-point when she corralled a deflected shot of a teammate and immediately went up for a shot under the basket, scoring through contact. Kimberly Frank added two more free throws later on to push the lead back up to 71-56 with just over two minutes to go.
With momentum slipping away, it was certainly a big response from the Rabbits as they were able to fend off SWC's rally and keep their season alive.
"Coach took a timeout and we knew we had to calm down and not turn the ball over," Guetter said. "I think we did a really good job of slowing it down and knowing that every possession had to count the rest of the way."
Wabasso faced Minneota in the first game of the season and was soundly defeated, 70-43. But with their 18 straight victories, the Rabbits feel they have a good shot at dethroning the two-time defending section champs.
"We know we'll have our hands full but we're playing very well right now," Dolan said. "We'll certainly have a battle ahead of ourselves, but I think we really have a legitimate chance to do well. I couldn't be more proud of the girls."