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GIRLS BASKETBALL: Prowlers stun top seed

MINNEAPOLIS--Losing both his elite post players is not what Thief River Falls coach Jeff Loe had in mind when drawing up the game plan for the school's second-ever state tournament appearance. Enter 5-feet-7-inch guard Kylea Praska. The sophomore...

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Jenna Tadych of Thief River Falls goes up for a shot in the first half against the defense of Hutchinson's Ellie Wheatley in a Class AAA contest Tuesday in the girls' state basketball tournament. Photo courtesy of John Molene.

MINNEAPOLIS-Losing both his elite post players is not what Thief River Falls coach Jeff Loe had in mind when drawing up the game plan for the school's second-ever state tournament appearance.

Enter 5-feet-7-inch guard Kylea Praska.

The sophomore guard came up clutch down the stretch with twin towers Jenna Tadych and Tiahna Nicholson relegated to bench duty because of foul trouble. Her late-game shooting led Thief River Falls to its first-ever state tournament win Tuesday night.

Praska scored 23 points to lead all players in a 61-59 Thief River Falls win at Target Center. The win advances Thief River Falls to Thursday's semifinal round.

When the 6-feet-2-inch Nicholson fouled out to join 6-foot-3 Tadych on the bench with 4:31 left in the game, Loe said his team was in uncharted territory.

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"We haven't had foul trouble all year. We fouled out two players all season, so to have two foul out in a game ... that just doesn't happen for us," he said. "Obviously, we had a huge adjustment to make when that happened."

With senior standout Meleah Biermaier rotating to the power forward position, it was Praska on the perimeter to step up. The guard was on fire, scoring nine of her points with the bigs on the bench.

Praska hit a 3-pointer with 1:19 to play to give Thief River Falls a 58-57 lead. She then hit two free throws with 45 seconds to go, giving the Prowlers a 60-57 advantage.

The game wasn't sealed, however, until Hutchinson's Erin Corrigan's jumper from the free-throw line was off the mark at the buzzer.

"(Praska) got us the game. Bottom line," Loe said. "She had a couple airballs early on. She's only a sophomore, and last year if that would have happened, it might have got in her head a bit. But this year, she was determined. I saw it in her eyes that she was going to go get a couple."

The Prowlers used their size to their advantage early on. Senior Tadych and sophomore Nicholson teamed up for 13 rebounds and five blocks in the first half while responding to physical play from Hutchinson.

"I knew they were really physical from the start because they're a (Twin Cities) team, so we had to stay with them and body up on them like other teams," Nicholson said.

Body up they did, holding the Tigers to 23 percent from the field in the first half-including just one make from beyond the arc in 15 attempts.

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Hutchinson (23-6) had its own adjustments to make, losing top scorer Tori Wortz to an injury less than four minutes into the game.

Instead, it was MaKenzie Rensch (13 points) and Morgan Kurth (12 points) who carried the load for the Tigers. The duo helped spark a second half rally, overtaking TRF and extending their lead to 52-46 with four minutes to play.

"We had to scramble," Loe said. "We had to go to the bench and go really small. We'll rotate our bigs out with our smalls, but to have them both on the bench and defend like we had to defend ... I'm so proud of the girls and how they kept fighting."

That defense paved the way for Praska. Four forced turnovers gave the Prowlers a chance to eliminate the deficit.

"Defensively, we had to step up," Loe said. "We hadn't really put any pressure on the ball all game, so I think that may have caught them by surprise a little bit. We pushed the tempo and created some scrambles and turnovers, and we took advantage of that."

Nicholson recorded 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks on the night, with Tadych adding four points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Biermaier tallied 10 points and seven assists for Thief River Falls (26-3), which was paired up with the top seed in the quarterfinals despite having the best record in the field.

"The seeding system is what it is. We got a draw at No. 8, having to play No. 1 two years in a row now," Loe said. "We used that with the girls, as a respect thing. We hoped to be seeded in the top five but we didn't, so we knew we'd have to come down here and prove that we belong."

For now, the Prowlers belong in the winner's bracket for at least one more game.

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The Prowlers also made some history as they became the first team in any class to defeat a No. 1 seed since the tournament seeding process began in 2007.

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