State Girls Basketball: Youngsters put Wingers in state finalsWith its three seniors on the bench, Red Wing's role players put the team into the Class 3A state final; will face DeLaSalle at 6 p.m. Saturday
By: Joe Brown, The Republican Eagle
MINNEAPOLIS – From the starters to the role players on the bench, Red Wing wanted everything out of its players in the Class 3A semifinals against Richfield.
“We had to play 36 minutes and no one player is more important than another,” Dave Muelken said. “We said, ‘You may play one minute or you may play 30.’”
And in the final three minutes, that statement rang true for the Wingers. In a two-plus minute span, Red Wing lost more than 3,000 career points in Tesha Buck and Macy Kelly, and its defensive stopper in McKenna Schaffer, as each fouled out.
“It’s not the place we want to be at, but we thought, ‘They got this. They worked hard for this,’” Kelly said. “We had confidence in them to be able to get it done.”
But instead of cowering under the big lights of the Target Center, the younger players shined and pushed the fifth-seeded Wingers into the championship spotlight with a 61-59 victory over top-seeded and second-ranked Richfield.
“We have an eighth-grader (McKayla Muelken) shooting free throws and handling the ball for us. We got Hailey Kuhl coming off the bench in the final minute and she gets fouled right away and hits two free throws for us. Everybody stepped up and that was really neat,” Dave Muelken said.
McKayla Muelken added, “That was the longest two minutes of my life. We wanted to win it for (the seniors).”
Awaiting Red Wing (23-7) in the finals is defending champion DeLaSalle. The second-seeded Islanders defeated Monticello 67-42 in the semifinals.
The Wingers’ underclassmen proved their merit right away in the first half. With Red Wing leading 15-13, the team had a huge scare as Buck went down on the floor grabbing her knee.
“I felt a pop,” said Buck, who finished with 18 points and six rebounds. “I thought it was an ACL, and that’s a player’s biggest fear. But it was just a scare.”
With McKayla Muelken filling in, the Wingers managed to stay close. Then, when the Spartans’ top player, Jessica January, went off with her third foul, Red Wing prospered at the free-throw line by going 10 of 10 at the stripe over the final five minutes. The Wingers went into the locker room with a 35-28 lead.
“(January’s) a huge difference maker,” Buck said. “We knew when she got her third foul, we had to go on a run.”
That late first-half aggressiveness didn’t stick with Red Wing in the second half as Richfield (26-4) jumped out to a 12-5 run to tie the game at 40-40 with 11 minutes, 51 seconds left.
Coming out of a timeout, the Wingers retook the lead with a layup by McKenzie Muelken. After that timeout, Red Wing looked more comfortable getting to the inside and getting back to the free-throw line, thanks to Kelly and McKenzie Muelken.
“To be able to get some shots inside was critical,” Dave Muelken said. “I know Tesha’s a good 3-point shooter, but you can’t win by living by the three.”
Kelly added, “You have to fight back and stay aggressive and meet their aggressiveness.”
Leading 52-47 with 3:02 left, the Wingers got dealt their first big blow when Buck fouled out. Then, at 1:24, Kelly got her fifth foul and January went to the line, hitting a pair of free throws to cut Red Wing’s lead to 54-51.
The senior captains were parked on the bench, but they had the confidence in the younger players.
“I was calm, surprisingly,” Buck said. “I had faith in our girls to hit free throws.”
After Schaffer fouled out with 54 seconds left, McKayla Muelken sent to the line and went 2-for-2, putting the Wingers up by four.
“It was a huge relief knowing I hit those,” McKayla Muelken said. “I was very nervous.”
After the Spartans couldn’t convert on the ensuing possession, McKenzie Muelken hit a free throw to put the score at 57-52 with 43.7 seconds left.
“We had to pick it up and do it for our seniors,” McKenzie Muelken said. “They’ve been amazing all year, they’ve done it all year for us. It was our time to be there for them.”
January, a Division I recruit for DePaul (Ill.) University, drove the lane for a layup to make it 57-54. Kuhl responded for Red Wing with a pair of shots from the line to make it a five-point game with 21.3 seconds left.
Following another clutch bucket by January, Wingers freshman McKenzie Cota went 1-for-2 from the line to make it 60-57 with 8.6 remaining.
January added to her game-high 29 points with a pair of free throws with 6.3 seconds remaining to cut the score to 60-59. On the inbounds pass, McKenzie Muelken was fouled, making it a two-point game after going 1 of 2 from the stripe. As a team, the Wingers were 27 of 36 from the free-throw line.
With 5.6 seconds left and no timeouts, Richfield raced down the court following McKenzie Muelken’s miss. But Mackinsey Schramm’s desperation 3-pointer missed, and the Wingers stormed the court with the victory in hand.
“It’s a positive thing thinking, ‘OK, we can do this. Why should we be nervous?’” McKayla Muelken said. It was fun. … This is the most exciting thing ever.”
Kelly had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, and McKenzie Muelken had 12 points and six rebounds. Kailey Adams added 13 points for the Spartans, who shot 32.1 percent from the field.