LA CROSSE — For a near six-minute span Friday night, the La Crosse girls’ basketball team showed why it is the favorite to win back-to-back sub-state titles for the first time in school history.
With Central Prairie League foe Victoria in town, the Leopards fell behind 19-11 late in the first quarter. Having started the night with a 12-1 record, La Crosse’s deficit came as a surprise, especially against the 6-6 Knights.
It was at that point when Morgan West and Erica Gilbert proved why La Crosse is among the biggest threats to dethrone four-time state champion Hoxie in Class 1A Division I. The duo combined to score 17 points in the midst of a 25-6 Leopard run, eventually leading La Crosse to a 68-51 victory and 13-1 start to the season.
West (21 points) and Gilbert (15) were two of three Leopards to score in double figures, with Olivia Baus adding 19. Sara Schippers led the way for Victoria with 12 points.
Under first-year head coach Nicholl Weigel, the Leopards have clawed their way to a No. 6 ranking in Class 1A Division I, their lone loss coming by nine points to Dighton, No. 5 in Class 1A Division II.
“We knew Victoria would be tough coming in,” Weigel said. “We didn’t know which team we’d see since they’re so young — the good team, the average team — but we knew if we let them hang around that they would make a (comeback). Good job to my girls for holding them off, but we definitely had way too many turnovers and didn’t prize the ball as much as we should’ve tonight.”
As it showed Friday night, La Crosse’s height is a rarity among small-town girls’ basketball teams. Tessa Pierce, a 5-foot-6 point guard, is the shortest starter with Baus, West and Mary Lacy all standing 5-10 or higher.
That height and muscle helped the Leopards cut a 19-11 deficit to one after the first quarter. The combination of a post game and shooting abilities led West to nine points in the first quarter, six coming via three-point plays. However, the quickness and finesse of Schippers pushed her to seven points in the quarter.
A trey by Pierce early in the second marked the end of a 14-0 run spanning with the Leopards up 25-19. Although Julie Wagner found her way inside for a Victoria bucket, West marched right back down and drained a 3-pointer of her own. The Leopards turned defense into offense with a block by Lacy leading to another trey by West, the final score of the game-changing 25-6 run.
The Leopards entered the locker room up 40-32 thanks to a block by Gilbert at the buzzer.
Over the next 12 minutes, the Leopards struggled to connect on passes against Victoria’s pressure. A steal and layup in transition by Tiffany Dortland cut the lead to 44-41 midway through the third. Gilbert repaid the favor by stealing a pass immediately after a Leopard miss and laying it in.
“Erica’s been big for us game in, game out,” Weigel said of her guard who averaged nearly four steals per game. “Her defense creates her offense.”
One minute later, West rebounded her own miss and put the ball in off the glass to push La Crosse back ahead by nine. The lead was at six after three quarters with La Crosse’s starters winded and in need of a break.
“It’s mostly a mental game,” Gilbert said. “We’re 12-1, so it’s an intense game and we have to be in. A lot of our starters started messing up and got taken out, which I needed. I needed the time to just sit on the bench and get my head straight.”
Both teams struggled mightily for the first four-plus minutes of the fourth, combining for just seven points before a Weigel timeout.
“She told us … that we need to come back out and get our heads straight and play, the starters need to step up and the bench people need to step up,” Gilbert said.
La Crosse responded to Weigel’s asking by getting the ball inside to Baus, who scored six points during a 13-0 run to seal the game and continue the ride that has the state on high alert of the Leopards.
“They’ve proven that they’re not going to go away,” Weigel said. “They’re for real. They might have beat up on some smaller teams, but they show us that we’re not gonna go away. We’re as legitimate as we know we are.”