By CONOR NICHOLL
EMPORIA – An official paid coach Anne Dinkel and the Victoria High School girls’ basketball team a compliment.
“The ref told our coach, ‘We are a fighting team,’” star senior point guard Kristin Huser said.
Victoria trailed by six at intermission and Huser had three fouls. Then, the Knights came back to take a one-point lead. Early in the fourth quarter, Victoria was down 18.
The Knights closed the deficit to five points within the game’s final minute and had a chance to draw closer.
However, Victoria’s comeback fell short in a 57-48 quarterfinal loss to Blue Rapids-Valley Heights in the first round of the Class 1A Division I state tournament at Emporia State University’s White Auditorium on Thursday.
“This team is not going to quit,” Dinkel said. “They are fighters.”
Huser and senior forward Audra Nowak closed out two of the best careers in Knights history with state appearances two years ago and this winter.
Huser finished with 25 points and four assists and forced Valley Heights to play more zone than they had in a single game all season. Nowak tacked on 17 points and seven rebounds.
Victoria, the No. 7 seed, finished 14-10, while second-seeded Valley Heights improved to 23-1.
The longtime friends hugged shortly after the Knights entered the locker room.
“Our first words out of our mouths were, ‘It’s over,’ ” a teary-eyed Huser said.
Valley Heights wanted to play its normal man-to-man defense, but Nowak and Huser, a Fort Hays State University signee, combined to hit the Knights’ first five shots.
The Mustangs made four of their first five and the game was tied at 10 at the 4 minute, 13 mark of the first quarter. Then, Valley Heights went to a 3-2 zone and led 13-12 after the first quarter.
“We just weren’t getting a body on her, and giving her too many open looks,” Valley Heights assistant coach Darin Blackburn said.
Huser committed her third foul with 3:51 left in the first half and didn’t play until after halftime. Victoria’s five possessions without her until the break went turnover, turnover, missed shot, missed shot, turnover and 1 of 2 free throws by Nowak. Blue Rapids led 23-17 at intermission.
Led by six points from Huser, Victoria opened the second half on a 9-2 run and led 26-25. Valley Heights, paced by 25 points and six rebounds from sophomore forward Brandi Jo Roepke, and 16 points and 11 rebounds by junior Sidney Blackburn, quickly came back.
“We just had slumps here and there, but we came out of it, and I think that we played great,” Huser said.
The Mustangs tallied 11 straight points, including the first nine in 47 seconds, to take a 36-26 lead.
“I felt we like we could have come out with that win if we just would have not let them have that little run,” Dinkel said. “But they had that little run on us, and that hurt.”
The 5-foot-11 Roepke, also a strong ballhandler, scored six points in the run. She averages 21 points this season and Blackburn collects 18 a night.
“We just wanted to try and deny her the ball, and force her to go right - the way she doesn’t like to go,” Dinkel said. “She has got a nice move, dribble left and come off right and shoot it. I felt my girls did play good defense on her in the first half, and we struggled maybe a little bit the second half. But she is a good ballplayer.”
The deficit bumped to 46-28 early in the fourth quarter before Huser rallied the team. With 57 seconds left, she made her first free throw, but missed her second. Huser cut past the defense, collected the offensive rebound and made the shot.
After a Knight steal, Huser moved into the lane and put up a shot over the defense that rolled around the rim and then fell in. After the shot, Victoria trailed 53-48, but Valley Heights made four straight free throws to secure the victory.
“We came back and they fought to the end, and I am proud of them for that,” Dinkel said.
Immediately following the game, Huser bent down, overcome with emotion, and then gave Dinkel a hug. In the postgame line, Valley Heights sophomore Taylor Doner congratulated Huser on her performance.
Dozens of Victoria fans came up to Huser and Nowak, the heart of Victoria basketball the last three years, after the contest to offer their support. In the last three seasons, Huser finished with 797 points, Nowak 715.
“It’s amazing,” Huser said. “It’s a really emotional feeling, but it’s great that we have all of this support that we do. These people drove three hours just to come and watch us play, and that’s just an awesome feeling.”
Valley Heights 57, Victoria 48
Kristin Huser 9-19 6-9 25, Schmidt 1-5 0-0 3, Pfanenstiel 0-6 0-0 0, Audra Nowak 7-15 3-5 17, Broyles 0-1 0-0 0, Schippers 1-4 1-2 3, Schmidtberger 0-0 0-0 0, Schremmer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals – 18-48 10-16 48.
Blue Rapids (23-1)
Coggins 0-3 2-2 2, Lesley Frohberg 3-6 6-6 12, Doner 1-3 0-0 2, Sidney Blackburn 7-10 2-3 16, Brandi Jo Roepke 11-20 3-9 25, Ohlde 0-0 0-0 0, McKay 0-0 0-0 0. Totals – 22-42 13-20 57.
Victoria 12 5 11 20 – 48
Valley Heights 13 10 17 17 – 57
3-point goals – Victoria 2-15 (Huser 1-9, Schmidt 1-5, Nowak 0-1); Valley Heights 0-1 (Doner 0-1). Technical fouls – none. Fouled out – none.
Rebounds – Victoria 29 (Nowak 7); Valley Heights 32 (Blackburn 11). Turnovers – Victoria 17, Valley Heights 17.