Lady Royals punch ticket to third straight national tournament
By Sam Herder
Journal Sports Editor
Danny Mertens has said multiple times this season that his Lake Region State College women’s basketball team shoots more than anyone in the country during practice. The shooting repetitions lead to confidence, and the Lady Royals had no shortage of confidence in Sunday’s Region 13 championship game against North Dakota State College of Science.
A game after shooting 38.1 percent from the field and going 1-for-16 from 3-point range in the semifinals, LRSC’s offense returned to its usual self.
The Royals’ balanced attack shot 51.2 percent to lead them to a 73-63 win against the Wildcats.
The win automatically qualifies LRSC for its third straight NJCAA Division I National Tournament. LRSC will still host the District D title game Saturday for seeding purposes.
“It’s unbelievable,” LRSC sophomore guard and Region 13 MVP Kennedy Henningsgard said. “It just feels so good. When the horn went off, it didn’t hit me, but as soon as we got in that big hug, I thought about it that we’re going to nationals and just started bawling.”
Henningsgard was a big part in getting LRSC’s offense going. She scored 10 of her game-high 25 points in the first quarter as the Royals took a 20-15 lead.
It was a quite the difference compared to Wednesday’s semifinal game against Williston State College when LRSC scored just 22 points in the first half.
“Kennedy was here to win it,” Mertens, named the Region 13 Coach of the Year, said. “That’s where sophomores go a long ways. She had one thing on her mind. I told the team all week, we weren’t going to shoot like that again. We’re just not that type of team.”
LRSC held its biggest lead of 17 points in the third quarter. But the Royals went to a zone defense due to foul trouble and NDSCS took advantage by knocking down several open 3-pointers.
The lead slowly became smaller for LRSC. NDSCS brought the deficit to four points three different times in the fourth quarter.
But the Royals had an answer each time.
Tyler Davis and Brooke Tayer hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to bring the score to 56-52. Kelsey Schlenk responded by burying her own 3-pointer.
A Tayer jumper made it 61-57 with four minutes, 45 seconds to play. Cassidy Nelson countered with a layup 25 seconds later.
With a little under two minutes remaining, a Wildcat free throw brought the score to 66-62. Again, it was Nelson about 25 seconds later with an answer. This time, the freshman was hit on her layup and converted the 3-point play to give LRSC a 7-point lead with 90 seconds left.
“The kids didn’t quit,” Mertens said. “It takes everyone. Hannah Swartz hit a big shot in the first half. Kelsey is about 0-for-20, but hits a big three in the fourth quarter. Those are things you talk about to never quit. You have to keep at it.”
“We have an open look, we’re taking it, no matter what’s on the clock,” Mertens added. “You have to go back to Cassidy being left-handed and people don’t realize she loves sneaking down that left side. If someone wants to try and block her, she’s going to lay it off the board.”
The Wildcats failed to find the bottom of the net on their next few possessions and were forced to foul. Henningsgard hit four straight free throws in the remaining minute to seal the game.
“Knowing that it could possibly be my last game as a Lady Royal especially, I felt I’m not letting it end here and we needed this win,” Henningsgard said.
Henningsgard also dished out five assists in the game and had some help on the offensive end. Kristal Flowers had a battle in the post with Brittney Thibeaux and finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. Nelson added 16 points.
“These girls have worked hard,” Mertens said. “We started back in August. I brought them to school early. I beefed up our schedule. They’ve worked hard and we’ve been knocked down a few times, but it’s all worked out now.”
LRSC is now 26-6 and carries an 8-game winning streak into the District championship game Saturday.
The Royals face the winner of tonight’s Region 4 championship game between Sauk Valley and Highland Community College.
The national tournament is March 14-19 in Lubbock, Texas.
“Saturday is a big game because with our strength of schedule, if we can win the district, I think seeding-wise, we might sneak in with a first round bye in the national tournament,” Mertens said. “That’s our next goal. We’ve just kept checking off goals. Our next goal is to win a district championship.”
Kennedy Henningsgard: 25 pts, 3 reb, 5 ast
Kristal Flowers: 20 pts, 9 reb
Cassidy Nelson: 16 pts, 3 reb, 3 ast
Helen Schuster: 5 pts
Kelsey Schlenk: 3 pts