DISTRICTS: Benson County tops NR-S in thriller, Nelson County offense ignites for victory over Warwick

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Benson County defeated New Rockford-Sheyenne, 39-34, and Nelson County defeated Warwick, 84-54, to advance to District 7 semifinals on Feb. 12 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School.

The postseason is here and early, due to freezing temperatures bumping up tip-off times a few hours ahead. While every team in the district hasn't hit the court just yet, Friday night saw District 7 quarterfinals kick-off, with the day's winners facing off against No. 1 Four Winds/Minnewaukan or No. 2 Harvey/Wells County on Saturday.

In the 4/5 matchup, host No. 4 New Rockford-Sheyenne was upset by No. 5 Benson County in a narrow 39-34 victory, seeing the Wildcats catch fire on offense in the fourth quarter. Following that game, No. 3 Nelson County would light up No. 6 Warwick, 84-54, breaking three players into double scoring figures. 

With two games in the books and two matchups set for Saturday, here's a recap of what went down on day one in New Rockford. 

Benson County 39, New Rockford-Sheyenne 34

Benson County -9, 7, 10, 13 - 39 

New Rockford-Sheyenne - 7, 15, 4, 8 - 34 

Benson County -- Neppl 3 4-4 13, Schwanke 3 1-5 9, Williams 0 0-0 9, Tofsrud 0 0-0 3, Nelsen 1 0-1 2, Tollerud 1 0-0 2. Totals 8 5-10 39. 

New Rockford-Sheyenne -- Bjerke 3 0-2 15, Demester 2 0-2 7, Cudworth 2 0-0 4, Belquist 2 0-0 4, Longnecker 0 2-2 2, Heinz 0 1-2 1, Hopfauf 0 1-2 1. Totals 9 4-10 34. 

3-pointers: Benson County 6 (Williams 3, Neppl 1, Schwanke 1, Tofsrud 1). New Rockford-Sheyenne 4 (Bjerke 3, Demester 1). 

It's a popular opinion, or fact depending on who you ask, that basketball is a game of runs. Whichever team finds that element that gets their shots to fall, runs with it until the other team counters. Friday afternoon's game between the Rockets and Wildcats ended up being a game of a run. 

In the 4/5 matchup to kick off the district tournament, it was expected that the game was going to be tight. The last game these two-faced each other had played was decided by eight points. Seeding wise, the Wildcats and Rockets had won and lost the same amount of district games, but NR-S would get the edge for beating Benson County.

Throughout the majority of the game, the Rockets held a lead but just couldn't pull away. Even when they found a way to go up two possessions at halftime, Benson County would storm back, tying the game at 24. No one had tapped into that spark to put them up by 10 or more. 

Still, in that grey area where someone had a one-point or two-point lead entering the mid-fourth quarter, Wildcats junior guard Ashlyn Williams would drain a 3 to put the Wildcats up two. Her shot finally gave way to the Wildcats offensive charge that had been building up. One 11-0 run and a counter to the Rockets press broke the Wildcats out of the boxing match and would advance them to the district semifinals via a 39-34 win over the Rockets. 

"We played ugly, but it got the job done," Wildcats head coach Kent Neppl said. "There were too many turnovers and too many silly mistakes. It was ugly, but the girls came out to play and I'm happy for them. The girls worked so hard all week in practice and they were nervous. We knew it was going to be a tough matchup because this is a good team. We got lucky tonight and that helped us a lot."

Early on, while the game was close, the Rockets were executing a press that the Wildcats were struggling to come back. Turnovers began to pile up and Benson County found themselves being pushed out of the paint on offense. NR-S shots weren't falling as plentiful as they wanted, but they were getting the looks that the Wildcats weren't

At halftime, they knew that they needed to clean up their ball-handling in order to find an edge. Coming back to the court, down six, the Wildcat's response to the Rockets press was heightened and began to open up the court and close up NR-S' lead. 

"We knew that if we just took care of the ball a little bit, we were going to have a better chance in the second half," Neppl said. "New Rockford did a good job of packing inside that paint, so it made it tough for Quinn or Kearyn to get inside the paint to score, so we had to go to the outside and got some huge shots to fall." 

In closing up the court, one of the biggest targets for any opponent to the Wildcats this season is junior guard Quinn Neppl, who charges Benson County's offense night in and night out. In the second half, the Rockets removed Neppl almost entirely from the Wildcats' offsenive equation, but that is where junior guard Desidy Schwanke would step in and lockdown.

When Neppl was pressured inside, Schwanke was the option to score in the paint as she would drain all nine of her points in the second half alone. Williams and Schwanke would hype each other up in the Wildcats' breakthrough 11-0 run as Williams would respond with her second 3-ball of the run to Schwanke's steal and score to put Benson County up by 10. 

"When everyone key's in on her [Neppl], it opens up for the rest of us," Schwanke said. "It's not just me helping out, but it's our posts down low too. It kind of helps when everyone is keyed in on here because they aren't looking at everyone else as much. When Quinn is being doubled teamed like that, we don't just run the offense through her, but through everybody." 

The 11-0 run was not just sparked by the Wildcat's offense but was apart of their press on the Rockets. They had a plan in place, but Benson County wanted to put it in play at the right time to make sure that it would have its effect on NR-S. After the Wildcats' long run, NR-S would only score five more points to the final buzzer. 

"I didn't want to show it too early," Neppl said. "Once we showed it, they were rattled and it worked really well. It got us some easy points and we needed those. Anytime you play a team on their home court in districts, it's tough. I told the girls before the game that we were starting it off in a 10-0, and we dug out of it in that run we made."

For the Rockets, when the Wildcats shots began to fall, they were struggling to find a way to counter. It was in ways a flip from the first half, as the Rockets offense was pumping the same way early on and they were hitting the shots they needed. There was an effort to pull within a tie in the final minutes, down six, but NR-S ran into the same problem of shots not falling when they needed them to. 

"We were hitting shots in the first half, that was the big thing I saw," Rocket head coach Elliott Belquist said. "We didn't hit them in the second half, started jumping the screens a little harder and it kind of flustered us a little bit. We just weren't patient enough to move the ball and rotate it, and they just out-played us in the second half." 

Off of the Rockets' strong offensive flow in the first half, senior Dani Bjerke continued to fuel NR-S's effort, finishing with a team-high 15 points and three 3-pointers. Belquist said that in order to Bjerke's efforts to continue through all four quarters, the Rockets need to hit her when she's open and have a general patience overall to make efficient plays. 

"We just have to get her open," Belquist said. "She's got to be more patient and let the ball come back to her, but she got to see the ball go through the hoop a few times, so hopefully we can keep that confidence going in the second half." 

The Rockets have Saturday off before facing Warwick for a bid to the regional tournament in two weeks. In their last meeting, the Rockets would walk away with a 69-25 win over the Lady Warriors. NR-S is not looking to shake up its approach too much, but are looking to up their effort even more. 

"This time of year we're not looking to change too much up," Belquist said. "The game plan will be a little different for whoever we play, but this time of year you have to give great effort and do those little things right." 

The Wildcats are celebrating Friday's win, but are making a quick shift to Four Winds/Minnewaukan in less than 24 hours. Benson County has been the Lady Indians' hardest challenge in district play, beating them by only five. After having a night where shots fell their way and going into a game against a team that shoots heavy, the Wildcats have confidence that big shots are not just for specific players on their roster. 

"Everybody can step up and hit that open shot," Schwanke said. "It wasn't just one of us that was shooting well tonight, it was all of our guards who were out there shooting. When we weren't shooting on the outside, we were looking in for the open girl, which helps." 

Nelson County 84, Warwick 59 

Nelson County - 23, 27, 18, 16 - 84 

Warwick - 18, 7, 16, 18 - 59 

Nelson County -- Baumgarn 2 1-2 32, Johnson 3 2-2 20, Emory 5 4-4 14, Ellingson 1 1-2 5, K. Lippert 1 0-0 5, P. Lippert 0 0-0 3, McKay 0 0-0 3. Totals 14 8-10 84. 

Warwick -- Hunt 6 4-5 19, Jackson 1 2-2 16, Belgarde 3 0-0 12, Anderson 4 0-0 8, Clark 1 0-0 2, Alberts 0 2-2 2. Totals 15 8-9 59. 

3-pointers: Nelson County 16 (Baumgarn 9, Johnson 4, P. Lippert 1, K. Lippert 1, McKay 1). Warwick 7 (Jackson 4, Belgarde 2, Hunt 1). 

Turning back the clock about two months, no one really knew what to expect from the Chargers when they took the court for the first time this season. It's a new co-op, with a new coach, combining two squads that used to be rivals. Only time would tell what to expect from Nelson County.

Fast forward to Feb. 12, the Chargers are continuing to make an argument for the district crown as they are not just rolling into semifinals against No. 2 Harvey/Wells County Saturday but dropped 84 points against Warwick along the way, the most they have scored in a game all season. 

The 84-59 win over the Lady Warriors continues to be apart of the Chargers system that few have been able to crack: a balanced attack. When one or two players are drawing attention, there are one or two more that step up to the plate, leaving opponents' heads spinning. 

"I felt like the girls came ready to play this week," Chargers head coach Gus Kueber said. "The good thing about getting one of these early games is getting familiar with the court and the rims. I thought we shot really, really well today. All that shooting in practice obviously played off. The hope is that we carry this momentum into Harvey tomorrow."

The offense was charged up for Nelson County, hitting more shots from deep than they did from the field. In particular, senior Kylee Baumgarn would go off from outside the arc, draining nine 3-pointers on the night for 32 points. While she had the hot hand, she credits the ball movement of her teammates to give her the looks she needed. 

"We were all moving the ball really well and that created space for all of us," Baumgarn said. "That really opened up the shot. Just drive in, kick it out and that worked out really well for us." 

Baumgarn led the charge, but a handful of other players powered Nelson County's offense as well. Junior guard Nora Johnson would catch fire from deep, draining four 3-pointers on the night for a team second best 15 overall. On the post, junior center Hollie Emory continued to perform at elite status, draining five from the field and shooting a perfect 4-4 at the line for 14 points. 

Having the shooting numbers close, eventually pumping up the overall tally, is something that the Chargers take pride in having a balanced attack. Kueber said that the Chargers aren't really focused on the individual stats but more on the overall team finish. 

"The good thing about the girls is that nobody cares about the individual success," Kueber said. "Some people can look at it as a bad thing that we're so balanced, but it's kind of nice when you can't key in on one person. Tonight, Kylee was hitting her shots, Nora was knocking down shots as well and we just move with the hot hand. That's what worked today." 

On defense, Nelson County found its success on the ground as their speed would limit Warwick heavily in scoring. The Lady Warriors found more conversions in the second half but struggled to break into double figures in the second quarter when the Chargers dominated. Similar to shooting, Nelson County has been pushing their running game. 

"A big thing for us tonight was to run the floor because we've been running a lot in practice," Baumgarn said. "It's really shown we can spring on these teams and make them tired faster. That was a big key tonight and I think we did that well from start to finish." 

Benson County defeated New Rockford-Sheyenne, 39-34, and Nelson County defeated Warwick, 84-54, to advance to District 7 semifinals on Feb. 12 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School.

Not only were the Chargers looking to come away with a win, but we're looking to get used to the floor that they're going to play on until Monday. One of the main things that they wanted to do was get shots up and a feel for the rim and the backboard. Posting 84 points for the first time they're at New Rockford as a team, Nelson County built up confidence they are looking to tap into down the road. 

They believe that there's an edge in having a play-in game, in getting used to the court, and the Chargers are looking to use that against Harvey/Wells on Saturday. The Hornets had the edge on Nelson County in the regular season, but the win was only by five points. Kueber said their last meeting was a battle to the end and they're expecting another one Saturday. 

"We're just trying to stay as confident as we can out there in any way," Kueber said. "Harvey is a good team and our last meeting was a fight the entire way. I don't think anyone got up by more than six or eight points at a time there. We know what we got to do, we'll game plan for them tomorrow and I think the girls are going to be ready when it comes down to it." 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.