ASHWAUBENON — Despite starting a lineup featuring freshmen Mia Morel, Anna Lutz and Laura Nickel, Marshall first-year girls basketball coach Alex Koeller believes the Cardinals’ youth belies their maturity.
“I’ve been saying this from the start: I don’t think these three are freshmen,” Koeller said. “I think they are seniors. They act like seniors. They are mature like seniors. They are gym rats. … They’ve been battle-tested every step of the way and they’ve handled each step.”
Point guard Morel and forwards Lutz and Nickel combined for 43 points and led top-seeded Marshall to a 58-47 victory over fourth-seeded Wisconsin Dells in a WIAA Division 3 state tournament semifinal Thursday at the Resch Center.
But don’t be fooled. The 6-foot Lutz — who had team-high totals of 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots — said the Cardinals (26-1) were “super nervous” prior to the game, which was Marshall’s first appearance at state since winning the Class C title in 1977.
“When we stepped out (onto the floor), we were kind of freaked out,” Lutz said. “But after it started, especially for me, it’s just me and my team on the floor.”
The 5-7 Morel had 16 points, a game-high nine assists and a Division 3 single-game record nine steals for Marshall, ranked fourth in the final Associated Press poll. The 5-11 Nickel and senior guard Samira Arvin added 10 points apiece.
“It’s hard to focus on one player on our team,” Lutz said. “I think that’s the big reason why we are so successful.”
After the ninth-ranked Chiefs (25-2) focused their defensive attention inside on Lutz and Nickel, Morel sank three 3-pointers and scored 14 of her points in the second half. Morel’s first 3-pointer gave the Cardinals a 33-25 lead and her second pushed their advantage to 38-27.
“I thought every time we made a run, Marshall hit some big shots,” Wisconsin Dells coach Bob Buss said. “For those freshmen to play the way they did, it’s amazing. Our pressure really didn’t affect them. The whole year we put on pressure and it really affected some teams. Today it did not. That is just a testament to them — (and) their composure.”
Katelyn Meister, a 5-11 junior forward, had a game-high 26 points for Wisconsin Dells, which had its 24-game winning streak snapped in its first state appearance. Junior center Jamie Pfeifer added 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
“This was the first time it was ever done and we are really proud of that,” Chiefs senior guard Jenna Mace said about reaching state. “Obviously, we would have wished for a different outcome. … Just our camaraderie is like nothing anyone has seen before. We all love each other immensely. We were really glad to be here. We did the best we could, but they were just better than us for today.”
The Cardinals mixed defenses, including a variety of zones, and forced 19 turnovers by Wisconsin Dells.
“It always starts on defense for us,” Morel said. “Once we get a defensive stop and we push the ball, we always look for the right shot and we don’t try to think about the score. We think first about getting a stop on defense and that helps your offense.”
Arvin helped limit Mace to five points, 13 below her average.“I feel like their compact defense was a big part of it,” Meister said. “We can usually drive in and finish really well. But they did a really good job defending that.”
The Cardinals gained separation right before halftime, using a 6-0 run to take a 24-17 lead into the break.
“That was huge,” Koeller said. “Being able to finish that first half with a seven-point lead was big for us. And it goes back to our defense. We were able to pressure the ball, get some deflections, get some turnovers to get some easy baskets. It just built our confidence going into halftime and coming out in the second half.”
Two free throws by Meister, who was 10-for-10 from the foul line, pulled South Central Conference champion Wisconsin Dells within 48-43 with 3 minutes, 32 seconds remaining. But Nickel scored inside and Lutz made four free throws, boosting Marshall’s lead to 54-43.
“We ran into a great team today and they overall played better than we did,” Buss said.
Capitol South Conference champion Marshall will meet third-ranked and second-seeded Amherst in the Division 3 title game on Saturday.
“I thought our girls played great,” Koeller said. “They were challenged from start to finish and we handled every battle that came at us. The biggest thing for us, they got a couple runs and we ended them with big shots. And when we needed to, we got defensive stops.
“I thought mixing up our defenses was huge for us today and we kept them on their toes. Our girls came out ready to go and played a great game. I was very proud of all of them.”
Wisconsin Dells 17 30 — 47
Marshall 24 34 — 58 WISCONSIN DELLS — Bates 0-2 0-0 0, Flock 0-0 0-0 0, Pfeifer 6-9 2-2 14, G. Myklebust 0-0 0-0 0, Mace 2-12 1-3 5, Smith 1-4 0-0 0, Meister 7-18 10-10 26. Totals 16-45 13-15 47.
MARSHALL — Arvin 4-6 0-0 10, Huettner 2-6 0-0 5, M. Morel 6-11 1-1 16, Lutz 6-12 5-7 17, M. Andrews 0-1 0-0 0, C. Morel 0-2 0-0 0, Nickel 2-8 5-6 10. Totals 20-46 11-14 58.
3-point goals — WD 2-8 (Meister 2-5, Mace 0-2, Pfeifer 0-1), M 7-11 (Arvin 2-3, Huettner 1-1, M. Morel 3-4, Nickel 1-1, Lutz 0-1, Morel 0-1). Rebounds — WD 18-18-36 (Pfeifer 12, Meister 7, Mace 7); M 11-12-23 (Lutz 8, M. Morel 5). Assists — WD 7 (Mace 3, Meister 2); M 16 (Morel 9, Arvin 3). Turnovers — WD 19, M 11. Blocks — WD 2 (Pfeifer 1), M 2 (Lutz 2). Total fouls — M 18, WD 14.