Packers tame Tigers for Section 1AAA crown

Published 12:25 am Saturday, March 12, 2022

ROCHESTER — After keeping Stewartville just at arms length for most of the game, the Austin Packers Friday night were able to pull away toward the end to claim a 70-57 win over the Tigers in the Section 1AAA title game at Mayo Civic Center.

Ultimately, the game came down to clutch shooting from a variety of sources that finally put Stewartville away in the second half, including key points from Austin’s three senior starters and from bench players.

But it wasn’t without its drama as the No. 2 seeded Tigers at times made things positively uncomfortable for the No. 1 seeded Packers.

“Stewartville played a heck of a game right?” head coach Eric Zoske said after the game. “They were hitting shots everywhere in the first half. We played four different defenses and they were executing  on all of them. They got us a little frustrated. I felt like we were playing hard, but when they are hitting shots like that we have to dig and scratch and make an adjustment. Lots of credit to them for putting us in that situation.”

The Packers went into halftime up 39-31, a lead they protected for the first part of the second half, fending off Tiger advances early in the second frame.

A flurry of points by Stewartville from Keeley Steele, Ella Waltman and Savannah Hedin shaved Austin’s lead to just one at 45-44, but Austin’s Ajiem Agwa came up clutch with a lay-up and three-pointer on back-to-back possessions to give Austin the 50-44 lead. 

“I think it’s huge that we can trust our girls that come off our bench and step up for us and take care of it,” said Olivia Walsh, who herself scored 15 points and together with Hope Dudycha helped push the game further out of reach toward the end.

Dudycha finished with a game-high 22 points.

After Stewartville scored the first two points of the game, Austin took control led by Reanna Schmitt, who was able to take advantage of a smaller Tigers team inside to set the tone in the first half.

The senior scored 16 points on the night, but 14 of those points came in the first half.

“It was a big game for us,” Schmitt said. “I don’t want our season to end and I know none of the others wanted our season to end so I just had to play strong. They’re a little bit smaller of a team so I just had to go out there and do what I could do.”

The Packers looked like they might push the game out of reach about midway through the first half after a score from Cassidy Shute put Austin up 26-14, but Stewartville was again able to keep pace with the Packers. However, Walsh was sent to the line. She hit the first of two free throws, but missed on the back end, only to catch a dish from Schmitt off the rebound to put in the follow-up bucket to put Austin up 29-17.

“She’s a little under the radar, but she’s been doing this really all year,” Zoske said of Walsh. “I think the biggest momentum for her was in Eden Prairie. They had a hard time guarding her so we’ve used that experience. She’s been doing this for a while and I think she’s going to get better.”

With a record of 24-5, the Packers will begin play at the Minnesota State Girls Basketball Tournament on Wednesday, March 16 at Maturi Pavilion on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Zoske will once again turn to his senior leaders to lead the charge like they did Friday night.

“Just a big shout out to the seniors,” Zoske said. “To just keep battling through. For these girls, who’ve been to state twice, now the experience is to get back. This is going to be a real fun way to cap a great experience for these three seniors.”