CHEROKEE, Iowa | They had to dig deep to do it, but the Cherokee Braves are the Lakes Conference girls basketball champions.
Cherokee rallied from a 13-point deficit to overtake Hull Western Christian 74-70 here Friday night and clinch its first Lakes title since the 2005 season. The Braves, ranked No. 3 in Iowa Class 3A, completed a season sweep of Western Christian, No. 4 in Class 2A.
Prior to a 77-65 victory at Hull on Jan. 5, Cherokee hadn't beaten the Wolfpack since the 2005 season, a team led by all-stater Autumn Bartel, who went on to become an NAIA All-American at Morningside College.
The Braves (18-1) trailed 51-38 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter, but fought back for their ninth consecutive win.
“We made some defensive adjustments and tried to limit Ashtyn (Veerbeek), she is such a good player,” Cherokee Coach Heath Hagberg said. “I thought our press was effective with the right combination of kids in there creating some things, getting them to play a little out of their system and taking some shots they maybe didn't want to take down the stretch.
“I thought our kids showed some resiliency. Right before the start of the fourth quarter we cut the lead from 13 to seven and will told them to keep chipping away and playing our style of basketball. Fortunately for us we came out on the top side of a good basketball game.”
Junior Kassidy Pingel scored 10 of her team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter and also pulled down 10 rebounds to chart a double-double. Pingel was 10-for-11 from the free throw line, making six of those in the fourth quarter.
“When coaches took the time out and we were down by 13 they told us to keep our heads down and keep pushing and that's what we did,” Pingel said. “We kept getting steals off the press and it was an all-around good team win.
“We knew if we won tonight we could clinch it (conference). We could have tied if we lost but our goal really was just to win it. Now we're going to go down to Spirit Lake and try to go undefeated in the conference and get ready for district play.”
Brianna Sleezer – one of four seniors in the starting lineup – contributed 17 points while freshman JaMae Nichols came off the bench for 14 points and nine rebounds for Cherokee.
Western Christian all-stater Veerbeek, who will play at Nebraska, finished with 23 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Olivia Granstra, who missed the last game between the teams because of an illness, scored 19 points and Jessi DeJager added 10.
The Wolfpack (16-3, 8-3) took a seven-game win streak into the contest and led 39-34 at halftime. Western got off to a hot start in the second half, outscoring the Braves 9-2 in the first two minutes of the third quarter and by the midway point had built a 51-38 lead.
“There were a lot of scramble plays, long shots and long rebounds and we got sucked in underneath and they drilled a couple big 3s,” Western Coach Justin Negen said. “Give their kids credit, they hit some really big shots tonight. Their pressure rattles you and we need to learn a little more about executing at the end.
“When they had the ball with a minute left we talked about running this defense and if we don't get a 10-second call to go foul. But they played catch for 40 seconds. Hats off to them, theydid what they needed to do.”
Cherokee trimmed the 13-point deficit to 57-51 entering the fourth quarter. Western was still in front 64-58 with 5:48 left in the game before Pingel made a free throw and after a turnover Sleezer canned a 3-pointer, pulling the Braves within a point.
Cherokee tied it 64-64 on a free throw by Nichols and took the lead on a basket by Pingel with 3:49 remaining. It was deadlocked at 66-66 when all-stater Paityn Hagberg nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the 2:14 mark.
Western missed two free throws, but Veerbeek came up with a steal and was fouled while making a layup with 1:24 left. She missed the free throw to leave her team behind by a point and Pingel was fouled at the other end, converting two charity tosses.
Ally Postma missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer and the Braves rebounded with around a minute left, leading 71-68. That's when they were able to burn 40 seconds off the clock before Sleezer was fouled and made what proved to be a game-clinching free throw.
“There were a lot of fouls called in the second half so we thought if we pulled it out and were able to secure the ball and get to the free throw line, we have some pretty good free throw shooters, so we felt we would have an opportunity to put the game away," coach Hagberg said.
“I thought it would come down to a lot of 50-50 stuff, rebounding, loose balls, making foul shots. Both of our games were great games and win or lose you're a better team at the end.”