Coming off a 62-50 win over Duluth East in the home opener five days earlier, a revamped Blaine (1-1) looked for its second win of the season against Coon Rapids Dec. 5.
The Cardinals (2-0) had other ideas, leading from nearly start to finish for the 53-48 win that saw 65 fouls called between the two sides and a combined 88 free throw attempts.
Coon Rapids won the free throw contest making 33-of-58, while Blaine shot 17-of-30. Both teams shot 56 percent from the line.
Blaine coach Chris Brustuen said the defense might have been in the right position at times, but reached to make a play too much, indicated by the numerous foul calls.
The infractions weren’t from bad calls, but from poor decisions on his players’ part, according to Brustuen.
Coon Rapids coach Toni Jesinoski said the fouls came down to inexperience and not being in a proper position to defend, at times.
“It comes down to moving our feet on defense and they still have the mentality to play upper-body defense,” she said.
Four Blaine players and three Coon Rapids players fouled out and five more players picked up at least three fouls that hindered any flow to the early-season contest.
Coon Rapids opened on a 17-5 run and led 26-21 at the break.
That lead stayed around 10 points until the closing minutes when Bengals senior guard Alex Howe found her shooting touch off the bench.
“We expect that out of her,” Brustuen said about the Bengals leading scorer who he calls one of the best pure shooters in the program.
Nine of her points came on three clutch baskets in the final 1:40 of the contest.
Brustuen said to comeback from 10 points down in the closing minutes is a good sign of the direction of the program.
“To get within one [point] with 45 seconds left, what else can you ask for,” he said. “We’re going to compete with everyone in this conference. We just have to get better defensively.”
Howe’s first basket cut the Cardinals lead to 49-41.
Blaine broke through the Coon Rapids press to find Howe another open shot at the top of the circle to make it 49-45 with 1:10 left.
The basket drew a roar from those left in the bleachers in what became a close finish.
Howe slipped while holding the ball in the corner of the court to induce a traveling violation, but sophomore teammate Alison Jablonsky intercepted the in-bounds pass and connected with Howe, who made a third long-range shot to pull the home team within a point 49-48 with 44.3 seconds left.
A parade to the free throw line continued and Coon Rapids made its baskets down the stretch, while Blaine couldn’t match.
Howe drove the length of the court but lost her grip on the ball on a lay-up attempt to end the contest.
Blaine made up for its shooting woes with aggressive defensive play by jumping Cardinal passing lanes, anticipating outlet passes or simply ripping the ball from Coon Rapids’ players hands at times.
“They did a good job jumping routes and we couldn’t adjust,” Jesinoski said. “And on the flip-side we didn’t work hard enough to get open. I just feel we didn’t do a good enough job reading their defense and adjusting on the fly.”
Brustuen said the difference defensively for Blaine from the first game was that Duluth East took unnecessary passes in the offensive set that allowed the Bengals to intercept the ball.
Bengals six-foot junior post ShaRon Miller provided a mismatch in the paint that forced the Cardinals to work more around the perimeter.
Brustuen said Miller uses her body well, given her lack of post-work prior to this season.
“She’s getting better everyday and she is going to surprise people,” Brustuen said.
Miller picked up a third quick foul with 12:59 left in the contest and finished with six points (two-of-seven free throws).
Cardinals senior Maegan McKernon had a game-high 15 points and classmate Shayla Huffman added 13 points for an otherwise young and inexperienced varsity group that sat 2-0 one week into the season; it’s Coon Rapids’ best start since a 2-1 start to the 2007-08 season.
McKernon and Huffman combined to shoot 14-of-27 free throws.
Freshmen McKenzie Wilkins, Marina Nyberg and Kaylee Porisch saw significant time on the floor
The annual “pack the gym” night featured boys’ and girls’ varsity games back to back inside the Blaine fieldhouse which meant the girls didn’t tip-off until after 8:30 p.m.
Brustuen said the pent-up hunger that carried over from the off season after going winless last season emerged in the season-opening win against Duluth East, but was lacking in the second game of the season.
“They wanted it so bad and tonight didn’t have that same urgency and energy,” he said.
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