A new confidence sparks Benson County to upset No. 4 L/E/M in season opener
It had been 655 days since the final score wasn't in favor of the Cardinals. A 58-43 loss to Kindred in the 2019 Class B state quarterfinals was the last time L/E/M had lost a game. Since then, the Cardinals have been untouchable, going 29-0 from the end of the 2019 season to the end of the 2020 season.
For 655 days, the Cardinals looked unstoppable, but Monday night, the first night of a postponed season, the streak was snapped.
Benson County (1-0), who has returned almost its entire roster from last season, kept pace with No. 4 Langdon/Edmore/Munich (0-1) for four quarters before a 3-ball from junior guard Ashlyn Williams would fall with 46 seconds left to give the Wildcats the upset victory over the Cardinals, 52-49.
"It was an ugly, but hard-fought victory. They never gave up and I'm so proud of my kids," Wildcats head coach Kent Neppl said. "I see a little more confidence in these girls because of their age, and it's showing."
Where, in the past, the Wildcats would flounder, they would flourish on Monday night. Benson County would hold a six-point lead going into the final five minutes of the game, but the Cardinals would go on a 10-2 run to take a two-point lead.
In a called timeout by Neppl, he told his team, "are we going to give this away?" and closed the huddle with his team chanting a resounding "finish" before taking the court. 4-0 shooting at the line and the 3-ball from Williams out of the timeout would certify the Wildcats aspirations to finish, and reveal the veteran Benson County squad walking off the court victorious.
"We got down there and I thought "uh-oh this is where it starts," and it didn't," Kent Neppl said. "Langdon probably hasn't found their identity yet, and when they do, they're going to be tough as heck because they have a lot of size. We got pretty fortunate tonight because they weren't hitting their shots and we were hitting some key shots."
While Williams was the won would slam the door on the Cardinals, junior guard Quinn Neppl was the one who ran the offense for Benson County. Throughout the majority of the first half, it seemed like Neppl would start every Wildcat drive sprinting down the sideline before cutting into the middle of the court to layup and finish. Her efforts in the paint would amount to a team-high 30 points. She was followed by Williams in scoring with six points.
"We do try to get me in the paint a lot, but when I'm in there it draws everyone to me, so it gets other girls open," Quinn Neppl said. "That actually works because, at the end, you saw girls coming off the bench making those shots that mattered when it mattered."
When Neppl can't finish herself, she said those coming off the bench have shown that they want to be on the court and are willing to do what they can to help. With Williams coming off the bench to finish off the Cardinals, it gave Quinn the belief that Benson County was finally going to beat L/E/M and Kent some relief that the game was looking like it was going to end in favor of the Wildcats.
"That took a huge weight off my shoulders," Kent Neppl said. "That was a huge 3 by her and she made a couple of them tonight that was huge. I'm proud of her. That's one girl stepping up and getting her first varsity minutes this year, and she's earning them."
The complete finish by the Wildcats shows the overall growth of a younger Benson County squad into a now veteran team in the region. It's been over five years since the Wildcats have bested the Cardinals, and a new confidence is brewing for this team as this unprecedented season kicks off.
"The confidence for these young ladies means so much," Kent Neppl said. "These young ladies haven't beat Langdon in a long time, but long story short, a win like this helps their confidence level. We played with a bigger and taller team, and hopefully, we can carry that over and play with other bigger teams."
For L/E/M, the loss acts as a learning lesson for stepping into the roles that Callie Ronningen and Kaitlynn Scherr have voided. The two losses have pushed the Cardinals into a reorganization of structure on and off the court. The duo shot heavy from 3-point range, and L/E/M is still looking to fill that void.
Against the Wildcats, L/E/M tallied up inside the paint but struggled to convert from outside the arc. The Cardinals come into the season with a new look and are still trying to find their way, which can come with some bumps in the road.
"Girls I thought would be really solid tonight weren't," Cardinals head coach Rob Scheer said. "Honestly, I haven't seen them play that bad in my years are coaching them, and I was wondering what was going on. I think they were caught in a moment where they are "the" girls now and they weren't ready for it. They can't be a girl that hurts us on the floor though."
The Cardinals were led off by senior forward Kaylee Lowery (17 points) and junior forward Morgan Freije (15 points), two players who played major roles in the Cardinals' success last season. However, tonight's finish for L/E/M brings forward a lesson that game effort starts in practice according to Scheer.
"We learned that when you come to practice that you have to put your game face on and play at game speed because you can't turn it on and off in practice," Scheer said. "You get lazy at times, and you just got to push through it and show leadership. The main thing is when you come to game time, we're well-schooled on defense, and it didn't look like that tonight. They owned it, and it's a new year."
L/E/M faces Kindred on Dec. 19 at Jamestown University, another challenge as the Vikings are the top-ranked team in the state. Benson County heads to Cando on Friday to take on North Star, who opens up its season Tuesday against Four Winds/Minnewaukan.
It's a long season ahead, but the Wildcats are living in the moment of snapping one of the longest winning streaks in North Dakota basketball.
"I don't have any words to describe it," Quinn Neppl said. "It's just amazing."
Monday night Lake Region basketball scores
Benson County - 52
No. 4 L/E/M - 49
New Rockford-Sheyenne - 52
Carrington - 23
Lakota - 46
Barnes County North - 42
Drayton/Valley-Edinburg - 52
North Star - 41