When shots weren't falling, Nelson County looked to its defense to hold off Rolla

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Nelson County defeated Rolla, 44-37, in Region 4 Tournament quarterfinals on Feb. 22 at Dakota Prairie Elementary School.

There's a popular English American phrase that defined the Chargers' defensive effort Monday night against the Bulldogs: "when the going gets tough, the tough get going". It's a popular one meaning when things get difficult, you step up and figure it out. 

Nelson County had the lead for its entire game against Rolla, but the offensive production slowed down on both ends of the court, placing the majority of the Chargers' faith in their defense. Rolla hadn't posed too much of a threat to the lead yet, but they had managed to cut it down within 10 points as the clock ticked closer to the final buzzer.

The Chargers would find buckets here and there, but in the end, their defense rounded out the effort. Still keeping the dream alive, Nelson County's press in the second half came up huge as they were able to hold off Rolla, 44-37, to advance to Region 4 semifinals against Langdon/Edmore/Munich on Tuesday. 

"It goes down in the books as a win. There were a few mistakes we made out there here and there, and it seemed like every time we built a lead close to double digits, they would creep their way back in," Chargers head coach Gus Kueber said. "We really talked about how everyone's backs are up against the wall and if you lose, you're done for the season. That's not the way we wanted to end the season." 

Not too much factored into why shots weren't falling for the Chargers later on in the game. It just happened to be one of those nights where they had the looks, but the ball would clink one way or bounce off the backboard. In seeing some shooting woes late, the Chargers plugged into press on the half-court and defense in the paint. 

Junior center Hollie Emory played a major role in the Charges paint play on both ends once again as she would finish with a team-high 17 points, draining eight from 2-point field goal range. She had to change up her attack in the second half after Rolla began to key in on her defensively, limiting her to three points in the fourth quarter. 

In having to switch the focus to a more defensive approach, one player who has had a versatile attack is junior guard Marit Ellingson. She has leaned into her speed advantage to make herself a defensive weapon on the court, forcing opponents into tight situations. In addition, her defensive effort has sparked her scoring drive as she finished with 16 points on the night, shoot three 3-pointers along the way.

"Marit's work ethic is off the charts," Kueber said. "She's constantly working for us and doesn't need to come out of the game cause she's never tired. The good thing for us is no matter who we're playing, Marit is going to guard the best player and give out her maximum effort." 

Ellingson's effort on defense has been a constant throughout the postseason. In the District 7 championship game, Ellingson limited Four Winds' sharpshooter in junior guard Myona Dauphinais to just nine points. Monday in an even bigger stage, the guard would limit Rolla's Morgan Leas to 11 points, seeing Leas score only two points in the second half. 

"I just focus on what I can do personally to help my team," Ellingson said. "Guarding some of the best players on the team can be a challenge, but I try and look at it as a way to help my team win. When we work together in our zone, it's tough for teams to work on us." 

Having the speed advantage on opponents' key players has allowed the Chargers to pick up an advantage on defense. Whether it's Ellingson, Johnson, or Lippert, the three might not be the tallest players on the court, but their ability to move around the court on anyone has made them extremely dangerous. Their advantage doesn't come on block, but in forcing turnovers or opponents to stumble with the ball. 

"When we play teams with good players, like tonight with Leas or Benson County with Neppl, it's important to get up on them because they're not used to someone on them quick to get those transition layups," Ellingson said. "I think when you take away a lot of those points, it's helped us win a lot of these games recently." 

Nelson County has had the advantage throughout the season of looking towards different players each night to help them to wins. The rounded attack and deep bench have allowed the Chargers to lean less on talent and more on the numbers game.

Emory has really been the only player that is on the top two in scoring game in and game out as Ellingson and senior center Kylee Baumgarn have rotated into that role throughout the season. Junior guards Nora Johnson and Paytan Lippert have been in the supporting role on offense and have had an even stronger impact on defense.

The numbers game was one of the edges the Chargers had against the Bulldogs as the game progressed. Rolla went around six players deep on its bench while Nelson County had over 10 players on the bench ready to go. It's been apart of the Chargers' rounded attack this season, not allowing teams to key into one or two players. 

"We take a lot of pride in our conditioning during pracitce and it does help to have all those girls out there," Kueber said. "Something we preach to the girls is staying involved. Even the girls who don't get a lot of playing time or the girls that get a couple of minutes, stay involved with their teammates knowing that they're there the entire time."

The sense of team has grown the Chargers as a whole from the start of the season as a first-year co-op. Nelson County did struggle out of the gate a bit, starting the season at 3-4, but has seen progressive improvement and is now two wins away from a potential state bid.

There are some nerves in facing the Cardinals Tuesday in Langdon. L/E/M jumped past New Rockford-Sheyenne, 44-23, hoping to repeat as Region 4 champions for a fourth straight season. The Chargers and the Cardinals did meet in late December, seeing L/E/M walk away 67-37 win, but the postseason has proven that anything can happen. 

Benson County would upset District 8 finalist Dunseith on the road in regional quarterfinals and not a lot of people suspected Nelson County would find its way to the district championship. There's a lot of the line when it comes down to it, but the Chargers believe that they are playing some of their best basketball when each game means even more than the last. 

"We're excited for Langdon," Ellingson said. "As a first-year co-op, we've been playing really well lately and I think Langdon will be a good challenge for us, but we're definitely up for 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.

Nelson County 44, Rolla 37

Nelson County - 17, 5, 17, 5 - 44

Rolla - 9. 7, 16, 5 - 37

Nelson County -- Emory 8 1-6 17, Ellingson 3 1-2 16, Baumgarn 1 0-0 5, Johnson 1 2-3 4, Lippert 1 0-0 2. Totals 14 4-11 44. 

Rolla -- Hanlan 1 0-0 17, Leas 4 3-4 11, Rosinski 1 1-2 6, Hendrickson 1 0-0 2, Samuelson 0 1-2 1. Totals 7 5-10 37. 

3-pointers: Nelson County 4 (Ellingson 3, Baumgarn 1). Rolla 6 (Hanlan 5, Rosinski 1).