Stewartville GBB falls to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in Class AAA Championship, 66-60

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(ABC 6 News) — All season long, the question was what would it take to beat the Stewartville Tigers.

Saturday night, the answer came in the form of going cold from deep as Tigers Girls Basketball was defeated by Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the Class AAA State Championship, 66-60.

It was Stewartville’s first-ever appearance in both the state tournament and championship game, finishing with a 29-3 record.

Junior Savannah Hedin led the way for the Tigers with 17 points as Stewartville trailed 34-26 at halftime. Freshman Audrey Shindelar sniped down a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Tigers some momentum going into the break.

In the second half, Stewartville went on a 22-13 run to take the lead by one point. Avery Spencer forced up a shot while getting fouled, adding the free throw for a 48-47 lead.

However, once the Tigers got said lead, their shots stopped falling, going nearly five minutes without a field goal. Meanwhile, the Red Knights kept focus and shot from beyond the arc to go back in front. Sierre Lumpkin for BSM had a trey from the right wing to make it 54-53 with 3:23 in regulation.

“A few times maybe where we went a little fast,” head coach Ryan Liffrig reflected. “But I thought the second half was a little bit better. We shared the ball, we had a couple go down the barrel when we had a four-point lead, three-point shots. There was one for sure when we were up four, that thing was down, right? Somehow it popped right back up. That would’ve put it to seven and I think that would’ve been huge, get our crowd in it. But it just didn’t drop for us, unfortunately.”

Seconds later at the 3:13 mark, the Red Knights forced the ball out of Stewartville senior Haylie Strum’s hands, BSM’s Zahara Bishop scoring off the fast break, the deficit now 56-53.

Even with the odds against them, the Tigers gave themselves a few more chances to close the gap. Hedin splashed her second three-pointer of the night, cutting BSM’s lead to 61-58 with 51 seconds left.

However, the Red Knights would not miss their free throws as Stewartville fouled, sealing the 66-60 victory to win the Class AAA Championship.

“I was nervous, I know some of my other teammates were nervous too,” Hedin said postgame. “But I knew we could just go out there and take it to them even though we didn’t win we still — I think we still played good as a team, our shots just weren’t dropping.”

“It’s really cool that this is our first time and it just hurts a little,” Strum mused. “Everybody really wanted that. But we still have to be proud of ourselves and what we did.”

Even with such a stinging loss, Stewartville made a strong statement in its debut tournament run, earning the respect of many, including Red Knights head coach Tim Ellefson.

“You could see the whole town was here,” Ellefson noted. “And all those kids are playing for their neighbors, the gas attendant, the postman, I mean they’re all there in the crowd. You could just see them leave it out there, very big testament to them.”

The Tigers will graduate two of their captains and best players in Haylie Strum and Keeley Steele, yet Stewartville still has the makings to return to State next season.

Hedin will be back for one last ride and Shindelar, a freshman, showed out on the big stage. Fellow freshman Ella Theobald held down the fort in the frontcourt and will continue to be key in the low post.

For now, all eyes will turn to the boys team as they begin their State Tournament run against third-seed DeLaSalle in the Class AAA bracket. Tigers Boys Basketball’s quarterfinal matchup is on March 21 at 4 PM at Williams Arena.