Gutsy, resilient, unshakable – call 'em what you want. The Vermillion High girls were all of those things as they recovered from a 15-0 Beresford run and emerged from a tense fourth quarter with the District 8A basketball championship Friday night, Feb. 24, 51-45.
Holding a 12-point lead three minutes into the third quarter, the Tanagers seemed well on their way to the district crown when the Watchdogs stormed from that 35-23 deficit into a 38-35 lead in the early seconds of the fourth period.
But despite Beresford's seemingly unstoppable momentum weighing heavily on their shoulders, the Tanagers refused to lose. "We tried to get some defensive stops and prevent their easy 3's," Coach Nick Mayer said.
The Tanagers resumed defensive pressure, causing Watchdog turnovers and grabbing defensive rebounds. They got a pair of three-point daggers from a blonde assassin named Lexi Regnerus. And they did what they do best, which is making clutch free throws when it matters most.
An attribute of this ballclub all winter long – getting themselves to the free-throw stripe and, once there, being successful – paid off once again in the season's most important game to date. In the fourth quarter the Tanagers cashed in 10 of 12 free-throw opportunities.
Everything was going Beresford's way after their 15-0 tsunami had wiped away the Tanagers' 12-point advantage. Taryn Twite's three-pointer in the first minute of the final period gave the Watchdogs their first lead since 2-0 back at the start of the game. But when Kelly Amundson was fouled while shooting with 6:46 left and made one of two free throws, the Beresford foul total had reached six for the half. That meant that each Watchdog foul thereafter would result in Tanager free-throw chances, and that was a huge factor.
Thirty-four seconds later, that next foul came. Amundson made the first, then the second, and VHS was back into a tie at 38-38.
Regnerus picked off a defensive rebound at the Beresford end, then drilled her third trey of the game at the 4:42 mark. Jessica Finch with her fourth field goal of the half made it 41-40. The Tanagers fouled on the next Watchdog possession, but the bonus situation was not yet in effect, nor would it be for the rest of the game.
After taking a timeout, the Watchdogs on their in-bounds pass threw the ball away. Regnerus paid them pay dearly with her second three-pointer of the quarter. After another Beresford turnover, Blair Gilkyson made one of two at the line. Yet this 45-40 lead was wiped out by Beresford's last gasp as the Watchdogs on a layup by Finch and a three-pointer by Twite tied the game for the last time at 45-45 with 1:41 to go.
Amundson was fouled while shooting underneath and swished a pair. Regnerus rebounded Beresford's next miss, was fouled and did the same thing – making the first, then the second at the line. It was 49-45 with 43 seconds left – now a two-possession game—and the district title was close but yet so far away.
Beresford was not able to get off a shot until the clock reached 0:20. It missed, and in a scramble for the rebound Josie Huber grabbed the loose ball and was fouled. She sank the first of a one-and-one at the 0:11.5 mark. Beresford missed again, Beth Szymonski was fouled on the rebound, and her free throw with half a second left provided the final six-point advantage.
The first five Vermillion points of the game by Val Robinson, a pair of buckets by Amundson, and three treys – one by Regnerus and two by Josie Huber – got the Tanagers rolling. The latter of Huber's bombs beat the first-quarter buzzer and lifted the red-clad fans on the Vermillion side of the court off their bleacher seats in unison.
"We had talked about getting off to a good start," Mayer said. "But we knew Beresford would battle their way back into it." The Watchdogs are no strangers to pressure-packed tournament basketball, having gone all the way to the state championship game last season before losing to Sisseton.
The biggest VHS lead of the game at 14 points came during the second stanza as Amundson and Gilkyson had two-point baskets and Bailey Carlson and Regnerus had threes. It was 31-20 at halftime.
Szymonski, plagued early by foul trouble, started the second half but picked up her third within six seconds and had to retreat to the bench again until the fourth quarter.
Baskets by Amundson and Robinson made it 35-23, but the Tanagers wouldn't score for the final five minutes of the third period while the Watchdogs began to hum like a well-oiled machine. Finch's three-pointer tied the game at 35-35 at the end of that quarter, and Beresford then got Twite's trey, the final points of the Watchdogs' 15-0 surge.
Amundson and Regnerus led the team offensively with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Robinson had seven as did Josie Huber off the bench. Carlson and Gilkyson added three points each and Szymonski two.
Only four Beresford players scored — Finch with 15, Alison Klostergaard with 13, Twite with 11 and Jessica Bogue with six. Klostergaard contributed six rebounds and four assists.
Finch had six rebounds as the Watchdogs accumulated 20 boards. Amundson had six of the Tanagers' 18 rebounds and Josie Huber and Regnerus four apiece. Amundson also was credited with six assists
The district tournament and thus the championship matchup between VHS and Beresford was played in Vermillion because, by the narrowest of margins, the Tanagers had earned the higher seed. "The atmosphere was unbelievable," Mayer said.
Vermillion had a 16-4 record in the regular season, and Beresford went 16-5. When the two teams played each other on Jan. 31, the Tanagers had prevailed 57-40.