ASHWAUBENON — Marshall girls basketball coach Alex Koeller sensed no complacency.
When practice began in November, Koeller saw a team that wasn’t satisfied with just one title and was eager to make a run at another state championship after earning the WIAA Division 3 gold ball last season.
Even after two consecutive December defeats, he witnessed more physical practices and increased energy among girls who despise losing.
The Capitol South Conference champion Cardinals’ quest resulted in a return trip to the Resch Center for this year’s state tournament. And the top-seeded and second-ranked Cardinals again celebrated as champions Saturday, after a 64-56 victory over previously undefeated Laconia.
“They love to play together and they love to win,” second-year coach Koeller said.
Sophomore forward Anna Lutz scored 26 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots in leading Marshall past the top-ranked Spartans, seeded second and making their state tournament debut.
“It is just an honor to come up to Green Bay and get to play these great teams,” said the 6-foot-1 Lutz, who shot 10-for-14 from the field. “Winning one (title) was like a dream come true for us. And winning two has been the best thing ever, and it just really means a lot to our team and to all the people and fans that come and support us.”
Sophomores Laura Nickel and Mia Morel each added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Cardinals (26-2). Marshall now has won championships in each of its four state appearances — the Cardinals also won back-to-back Class C championships in 1976 and 1977, the first two years of the girls tournament.
“I think it’s very amazing what we did,” said Morel, a 5-7 guard. “I think the second year is harder to win it. We had a lot of passion to win, and everyone came together. The way we won it was not by one person. Everyone put in their work and did what they needed to do in order for us to win.”
Senior guard Kiarra Otto led Laconia (27-1) with a game-high 27 points and sophomore guard Haley Rens added 11.
“It was a tremendous back-and-forth game,” Spartans coach Chris Morgan said. “Both teams battled very hard. We got to the second half there and they made a little run on us and opened up that lead to nine (or) 10 points. We did a great job of battling back. But it seemed every time we got within two or four points, they would come back and hit a big basket.”
The Cardinals, who finished the season with an 18-game winning streak, used an 11-2 run and broke free from a 43-43 deadlock with 10 minutes, 12 seconds remaining.
“Our girls just showed resiliency,” Koeller said. “Each and every time Laconia made a run, we locked in on defense and made sure we’d get the best possession offensively, and we ended those runs quickly. The girls never wavered, they never cracked under pressure and they handled themselves very well from start to finish.”
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Lutz scored the opening two baskets in the run, the first off a feed from Morel.
Morel then made a 12-foot jumper, giving Marshall a 49-45 lead and starting a string of seven unanswered points. Lutz made a crafty move and scored another inside bucket, before Morel made one of two free throws and the 5-11 Nickel drove the baseline for a basket and a 54-45 lead with 5:59 left.
“(Lutz) was great,” Morgan said. “We just couldn’t keep her away from the basket. … She was just strong and seemed to finish everything around the hoop, even when we did get there and have some hands in her face. She just did a great job of keeping her composure and just finishing around the hoop.”
The Cardinals outrebounded the Spartans 39-24. Marshall shot 57.1 percent from the field (12-for-21) in the second half and 50 percent overall.
“Credit goes to the girls,” Koeller said. “They found the open person. The open person knocked down the shot. We try to keep it as simple as that.”
And the Cardinals were repeat champions. As simple as that.
“One thing we have been talking about every practice since the season started is we have a target on our back,” Lutz said. “It’s definitely a lot different to play with a target on your back than being the underdog. … It’s definitely a lot more pressure than last year. It was a different type of game every single night. But it was still fun for us. We got to play knowing everyone wanted to beat us, which is really cool.”
Laconia 24 32 — 56
Marshall 29 35 — 64
LACONIA — Otto 9-22 6-9 27, Dins 4-11 0-2 9, Rens 4-12 0-0 11, Wurtz 1-2 0-0 2, Grade 3-7 1-2 7, Smit 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 21-57 7-13 56.
MARSHALL — Neuberger 1-2 4-6 7, C. Morel 2-3 3-4 7, M. Morel 4-11 3-4 12, Lutz 10-14 4-6 26, Nickel 5-12 2-3 12. Totals 22-44 16-23 64.
3-point goals — L 7-22 (Rens 3-8, Otto 3-9, Dins 1-3, Smit 0-2); M 4-12 (Lutz 2-2, Neuberger 1-1, M. Morel 1-4, Andrews 0-1, Nickel 0-4). Rebounds — L 7-17-24 (Dins 7, Grade 6); M 8-31-39 (Nickel 8, Morel 8, Lutz 7). Assists — L 8 (Dins 6); M 7 (M. Morel 2, C. Morel 2). Turnovers — L 6; M 14. Steals — L 9 (Dins 3, Otto 3, Wurtz 3); M 5 (Lutz 2, Neuberger 2). Blocks — L 2 (Dins 1, Otto 1); M 3 (Lutz 3). Total fouls — L 16; M 9.