By Patrick Slack
As the closing seconds ticked off the clock during last year’s Section 5A championship, Upsala could only watch as their opponents celebrated a trip to the state tournament.
This year, it was a different story.
As it rallied back from an early 21-6 deficit, Upsala slowly made its dream of being the first team in school history to reach state seem more and more like reality.
By the end, the relentless ball-hawking Cardinals’ defense had become too much for Pine River-Backus, as Upsala pulled out a 47-41 victory in Crosby.
Now, the ninth-ranked Cardinals will move on to play third-ranked Bethlehem Academy in the Class A quarterfinals at Williams Arena, Thursday at 11 a.m.
The dream of making history was in jeopardy from the opening tip, as Pine River-Backus roared to a 13-2 lead less than five minutes into the game, forcing a quick Upsala timeout.
“When you play big games like this, your adrenaline is sky high as soon as you take the court and it kind of showed,” Upsala head coach Paul Pelzer said. “We started a little slow, obviously. I told the girls we just need to relax because we’ve been in that situation four, five times this season against really, really good teams.”
“We’ve always, luckily, come back and made a game out of it or won,” he said. “These girls don’t give up. If you’re ahead by 15 points on us, you better not go back on your heels because chances are we’re going to come back.”
The Cardinals regrouped for a short spell to close within single digits, only for the Tigers to go on another spurt to extend their lead to 21-6 with 7:08 remaining in the first half.
Upsala entered the contest as no stranger to double-digit deficits, having rallied back from 10 points down just to reach the sub-section finals.
But the Cardinals also knew they had little time to waste if they were to get back into the game.
Then the Upsala defense tightened.
And senior Aimee Pelzer took over.
Following a basket by senior Alissa Zehrer, Pelzer drained a pair of threes and swatted away two Pine River-Backus shots, helping spark an 13-0 run that cut the Tigers’ lead to 21-19.
Pine River-Backus held onto its narrow lead the remainder of the half, going into the break up 29-25.
However, the tide of the game had clearly shifted and Upsala was well within striking distance to open the second half, with momentum firmly on the Cardinals’ side.
“We just wanted to get the momentum back on our side and I firmly believe we had that going into the locker room,” coach Pelzer said. “I knew the first five minutes of the second half was so key, to score and get some stops, and that’s exactly what the girls did and finally, we went ahead.”
“I felt extremely good at that point because I felt they would probably be forcing a few things and that’s what happened,” he said. “I felt they lost their legs a bit because we were forcing the ball up and down the court. In a game like this, substitutions are key and that was in our advantage tonight.”
Upsala wasted little time getting back on the attack coming out of the locker room, tying the score at 29-29 just over a minute into the half on baskets from Zehrer and Pelzer.
Pine River-Backus took back the lead at 31-29, but would never get it back following another field goal by Zehrer and a three-pointer from the corner by Pelzer to give Upsala its first lead at 34-31 with 13:30 remaining.
The Tigers managed to tie the score two minutes later, but another three from Pelzer with 10:04 left put the Cardinals ahead for good.
Sophomore Sara Herzog scored Upsala’s next four points to help preserve the lead over the proceeding six minutes, then junior Katie Ripplinger knocked down a put-back attempt with 3:57 left to extend the advantage to 43-36.
Sophomore Brooke Westrich laid in a no-look pass from Pelzer to extend the lead to 45-36 with just over three minutes left, the Cardinals’ largest lead.
Pine River-Backus wasn’t quite ready to go away, though, knocking down a three to narrow the deficit to 45-39 with 1:47 left. The Tigers maintained the pressure, forcing a pair of turnovers and regaining possession after a pair of misses on the front end of one-and-one free-throw attempts.
But the Tigers couldn’t connect on two attempts from beyond the arc that would have closed the gap to one possession, while Upsala finally put the game out of reach when Tracy Herzog sank two free throws with 10 seconds left.
“I thought with a minute to go when we were up by nine, ‘You know what, we’re going to be OK, we just need to take care of the ball and hopefully get to the free-throw line.’
“I was fully relaxed when there was about one second left,” he said.
The Tigers hit a shot as the buzzer sounded, but by then it was too late.
The Cardinals’ turn to celebrate had come.
“The last part of the season, I told the girls, I didn’t realize how good they were until midseason, until we started playing some huge games against some very talented teams and that all we need is some other contributions and we’re going to be darn tough,” coach Pelzer said. “And that’s exactly what’s happened.”
“I didn’t know what to expect this year because we did lose a ton of talent from last season’s team, but these girls got to where they are by playing against those seniors that graduated last year,” he said. “When you play against tough competition all the time, you can do nothing but get better and that’s what they did.”
“They are so passionate for the game,” coach Pelzer said. “They love it and I’m just so happy for them. I just hope the girls have a great experience down there. We’re going to leave it all on the court and we’re going to have some fun.”