Lauren Arneson defends in open court Jessie Mathews of Bethlehem Academy.
Lauren Arneson defends in open court Jessie Mathews of Bethlehem Academy.
The Lions ended their post-season ride one game short of the state tournament on March 7 with a 53-35 loss to Bethlehem Academy in the Section 1A Championship game.

State-ranked at no. 3, the team from Faribault avenged its 2012 section finals loss to Spring Grove. The Cardinals were the Section 1A West champions while the Lions lead 1A East.

BA lead throughout this year's game against unranked Spring Grove, relying on a gritty defensive effort to thwart Lion shooters.

The Cards' size advantage inside led to a 13-2 scoring advantage with post passes and a 34 to 25 rebounding margin despite 12 boards from Lion center Nicole Ellingson. It was the fourth straight double-digit rebounding game for the 5-9 Spring Grove junior.

Against the Cardinals' effective match-up zone defense, the Lions did not hit a field goal for the first 7 minutes and 50 seconds and sank only 4 of 21 shots (14%) on the way to a 31-16 halftime deficit.

SG shot better in the second half (7 for 23) but still finished with a season-low 22% from the field against the section's best scoring defense. BA has limited opponents to a 40-point average this year.

Point guard Jessie Mathews was again the dominant player for the Cardinals with 17 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals.

The KFIL-Radio Cardinal Player of the Game dictated the pace of the FBA attack whether directing the half-court offense or leading fast breaks.

Coming off last summer's surgery on both knees with a brace on one knee, the 5-foot, 8-inch senior was too skilled and quick for the Lions to trap in the backcourt and too strong and athletic while pushing the ball in transition.

She scored 11 of her 17 points on fast breaks and assisted on the Cardinals' other two transition baskets as FBA outscored SG 16-4 in the open court.

It was second fewest points scored by SG this season; the Lions lost to Class AA Lourdes 43-31 in game three.

Spring Grove was much better at the foul line where they shot a season-best 90%. But FBA outscored the Lions there as well, hitting more free throws (12 for 19) than SG attempted (9 for 10).

As good as Mathews was, she scored 10 fewer points than she tallied in last year's title game while being guarded primarily by senior Nikki Hansen and sophomore Julianna Sand.

Hansen shared Lion Player of the Game honors with classmate Randi Mehus. Mehus scored a team-high 12 points and rebounded 5 times. Hansen had 5 points.

The KFIL Game Ball Award went to senior point guard Addison Cross who contributed 7 points, 3 assists and 3 steals.

Ellingson added 3 points while the Lions received 2 points each from Aly Folz, Kailee Bjerke, Samantha Bratland and Lauren Arneson.

Halfway through the second half, two treys from Mehus completed a sequence that cut a second-half 19-point deficit down to 12.

The rally appeared to continue with a steal that set up a fast break lay-up, but the play was ruled a foul instead of a steal, and the Lions would get no closer.

The Cardinals were difficult to catch as they were capable of working patiently for good shots while the clock ran on. FBA also shot better in the second half and finished at 41% overall.

Also scoring in double figures for FBA were senior guard Taryn Ashley with 12 points and senior center Hana Palmer with 10.

Ball handling was solid as each team had only 11 turnovers until a Cardinal reserve lost possession in the fading seconds.

Spring Grove's season ends at 23-7, the Lions' sixth straight winning season and the fourth straight with 23 or more wins. It is also the girls' third straight season of reaching the section championship game.

They also appeared in '95, '97, and '09. Last year Spring Grove finished fourth in the state tournament.

FBA (24-4) played 6 seniors and 2 sophomores and heads to state for the second time in school history (previously going in 1998). They will face section 5 champion Upsala High School on March 14.