MANKATO – Once New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva overcame a shaky start to Friday’s Section 2AA Championship game, the court at Bresnan Arena quickly became a platform for the Carlie Wagner show.
The Panthers’ junior amassed a game-high 49 points – bouncing back from an uncharacteristic 19-point effort in a sub-section finals win over Hayfield two nights earlier – to carry top-seeded NRHEG (29-1) to a 96-61 Section 2AA title victory over St. Peter (22-6) at Minnesota State University, Mankato in a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s section title game.
Wagner, who also had 10 assists, seven rebounds and six steals, did it all.
“Unbelievable,” NRHEG coach John Schultz said. “What do you do to stop her?”
Well, if you ask teammate Jade Schultz, there’s not much anyone can do.
“No one can stop her,” Jade Schultz said. “I don’t care if they’re 6-foot-8 or 5-foot-2 – no one can stop her.”
While Wagner ran the show, her eighth-grade sister, Marnie, and teammate Paige Overgaard played the roles of best supporting actors. Marnie came off the bench to add 14 points and four steals while Overgaard chipped in 12 points, three steals and three assists.
The Wagner trio, which includes Marnie’s twin sister, Maddie (seven points, four steals, two blocks), combined for 70 of NRHEG’s 96 points as the Panthers shot 63 percent from the field. Carlie Wagner scored 31 points by halftime – matching the entire St. Peter roster.
“I felt more loose and confident tonight than I was during the Hayfield game,” Carlie Wagner said. “I came with the right ... mentality this time, and last time I don’t think I was completely focused. And I think that was the big difference in the game.”
The Panthers, currently ranked No. 2 in Class AA behind top-ranked Providence Academy, will make a second straight trip to the Class AA Tournament after taking third place at state last season. NRHEG will take on Pelican Rapids, which beat Crookston 61-56 in overtime in the Section 8AA championship game Friday, in the Class AA quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena.
On Friday night, after the Panthers received the section trophy and cut down pieces of the net at Bresnan Arena, the NRHEG student section, donning bright neon apparel, embraced the moment by frenetically storming the court.
“I can’t even express my words right now,” Marnie Wagner said after the mob of students embraced the team on the floor. “It’s just a blast.”
“There was more pressure this year, just because we expected to (win the section),” John Schultz said. “And frankly, it’s a huge weight off our shoulders, and the kids’.”
The Panthers looked shaky in the game’s opening minutes. St. Peter took a 4-0 lead as NRHEG struggled with early turnovers. Jade Schultz – who finished with eight points, seven boards and five assists – then opened the floodgates on an early 3-pointer, triggering the Panthers’ offensive deluge.
NRHEG went on a momentous 16-2 run midway through the half, spurred by 11 points from Carlie Wagner, to set the tone for the rest of the game. In an explosion of offense, Carlie Wagner finished an and-1 play, put in a layup after a steal, snatched a steal, and then hit back-to-back 3-pointers. All of the sudden, the Panthers led 30-12 with 10:27 left in the half.
“The hoop was big for us tonight,” Carlie Wagner said. “We just were hitting the shots tonight, and that’s fun at this point in the season just to hit those shots. It was falling for us tonight.”
Their defense was clicking, too. The Panthers’ zone trap at times overwhelmed St. Peter and translated into 21 steals, many of which turned into fastbreak points. The Saints finished with 25 turnovers.
And in the second half, there was no déjà vu from last year’s section title game, when St. Peter trimmed NRHEG’s early 21-point lead to three points in the second half. This year, after leading by 23 points at halftime, the Panthers quelled any hopes of a comeback by maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead on their way to a second straight trip to the state tournament.
“A lot of people were expecting us to go back (to state) this year, and I’m so thankful that we’re going back this year,” Marnie Wagner said. “I’m so excited for the next week to come.”
Reach Sports Editor Miles Trump at 837-5447, or follow him on Twitter.com @WCNSports.