By Scott Williams
STEVENS POINT – In theory, D.C. Everest girls basketball coach Matt Bullis’ plan was to shut down Stevens Point Area Senior High junior standout Leah Earnest.
Bullis figured if you put the clamps on the Wisconsin Valley Conference’s top scorer, SPASH could be in big trouble.
Slowing down Earnest, let alone stopping the junior forward is easier said than done. The Evergreens learned that for the third time this season Friday night.
A Division I Valparaiso University verbal commit, Earnest finished with a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds and SPASH earned a three-game sweep of DCE with a workmanlike 54-45 win in a Division 1 regional semifinal.
“We were all prepared to be in a close game because of how well D.C. Everest has been playing,” SPASH senior guard Rachel Lummis said. “They’ve gotten a lot better this year, so we were all mentally ready to be challenged.”
Next up for the Panthers (17-6) is a rematch with Chippewa Falls (18-5) in the regional final Monday night.
Originally scheduled for Saturday night the game has been pushed back a couple days due to the forecast for inclement weather across the state Saturday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
The teams met in nonconference action Feb. 9 and Chippewa Falls (18-5) took down the Panthers 87-64.
The Wisconsin Valley Conference champions hope to change that outcome in Round 2 with the Cardinals, and grab a spot in the sectional semifinals in the process.
“We played them about a month ago and the game was much closer than the score,” Stevens Point coach Kurt Terpstra said of matchup up with the Cardinals again. “I told the girls Chippewa Falls had that game marked on the calendar. Now we need to mark it on our calendar and how about we return the favor.
“We’re going to go over there and give it out best.”
DCE gave the fifth-seeded Panthers all they could handle for the second game in a row.
When the Wisconsin Valley Conference rivals met Feb. 1 in Weston, the Panthers had to dig down deep to pull out a 43-37 win.
The regional matchup mirrored that meeting. The Evergreens were able to turn the game into a grinder. Alexis Wojnowiak and Dannie Langseth were a handful to handle inside.
In the end, the outcome came down to the Panthers’ ability to convert from the free throw line down the stretch and lock down DCE on the defensive end of the court.
Lummis, Madisyn Rogan and Earnest stepped to the free throw line and converted 12 of 14 free throws in the waning minutes to seal the win.
“It really did come down to free throws. Free throws are something we emphasize every day in practice,” Lummis said. “We know that games like this, and in the playoffs, come down to free throws.”
Wojnowiak, who finished with a team-high 19 points, and Langseth, were formidable in the paint and instrumental in making sure DCE stayed within striking distance.
Malorie Schmoll lent a helping hand in the second half, accounting for 11 of her 15 points. With six minutes left in regulation, the outcome was still very much up in the air, with the score knotted at 40-40.
The Evergreens (9-13) would only muster five points the rest of the game.
“That’s the Achilles heel of this group. They’re great kids, but we just have a hard time scoring. They kept grinding and we had a shot,” Bullis said “We were right there.”
Only five players scored for each team.
Rogan scored all 10 of her points after the break and Lummis added nine points to lend Earnest a helping hand.
Style points don’t matter at this time of the season. All that matters is winning and having a chance to play another day.
“Tournament time is survive-and-advance. I’m pleased with how we played. I’m pleased with how we locked it down defensively late,” Terpstra said. “I thought their go-to players played well. I thought we made them a little more uncomfortable than the last time we played them.”
Panthers 54, Evergreens 45
D.C. Everest 22 23 – 45
SPASH 25 29 – 54
D.C. EVEREST (45): Olivia Fernstaedt 2, Alexis Wojnowiak 19, Malorie Schmoll 15, Hanna Stuedemann 2, Dannis Langseth 7.
SPASH (54): Rachel Lummis 9, Kaylee Hintz 5, Madisyn Rogan 10, Leah Earnest 24, Zoe Fink 6.
3-pointers: DCE 0; SPASH 6 (Hintz, Earnest 2, Fink 2, Rogan).
Records: SPASH 17-6; D.C. Everest 9-13.