Knights hand Garrison first loss in nail-biter

Our Redeemer’s Christian School girls basketball coach Kory Nelson admitted he had screwed up the lineup, forgetting to pencil in junior forward McKensie Popinga as one of the starting five.

He wasted no time subbing her in and Popinga showed why she belonged on the court.

The 5-foot-10 forward recorded 10 points and pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds as the Knights defeated Garrison 52-47 on Saturday. ORCS led by as many as 12 points before holding off the Troopers down the stretch.

“I think the girls just wanted to prove they could play with a good team,” Nelson said. “We let the ball drop down in Max on Saturday and the girls just wanted a little redemption. I thought the girls played their hearts out and did a really good job.”

The difference was the free-throw line. In the final minutes, the Knights went 4-for-6 from the charity stripe while the Troopers were 1 of 4. Popinga hit 1 of 2 to give ORCS a 49-46 lead. A free throw by Garrison’s McKenna Mai made it a two-point game, but ORCS freshman Lauren Hendrickson knocked down two pressure-packed shots from the line to give the Knights a 51-47 lead with less than a minute remaining. Hendrickson scored all seven of her points in the fourth. ORCS eighth-grader Karlee Zablotney split a pair of free throws in the final seconds.

“That’s why we practice them,” Nelson said. “They kind of took that upon themselves. We shoot a lot of free throws in practice, but you never really see it until the game. They were tired, but they were able to make them.”

The Knights (5-4) led the majority of the game, but Garrison stayed within striking distance in the first quarter. The teams traded baskets as ORCS freshman Morgan Olson, junior Gabi Boeckel and Popinga hit two shots each in the first eight minutes and Garrison’s Taylor Kamp recorded seven of her team’s first 10 points. Popinga’s second bucket of the game gave ORCS a three-point lead, but Ellie Gehring scored the final five points of the opening quarter to give the Troopers (6-1) a 15-13 advantage.

It was all ORCS – and mostly all Olson – in the second quarter. Olson netted 14 points in the second frame and finished with a game-high 20. She scored the quarter’s first nine points.

“I just think I got going a little in the second quarter,” Olson said. “My arms and legs started pumping and I was really warmed up.”

The Troopers mustered just four points in the second quarter. Sarah Behles broke Garrison’s dry spell with 3:22 remaining in the half. Shelby Gehring followed with another basket to cut ORCS’ lead to 22-19, but the Knights scored nine unanswered and headed into the locker room with their largest lead of the game at 31-19.

Garrison spent the majority of the second quarter shooting from behind the arc with no luck. The Troopers missed every shot from the perimeter.

They forced the action in the second half, driving the lane and drawing fouls. Olson was whistled for her fourth foul with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.

“We want to go to the free-throw line,” Garrison coach Sandra Essler said. “When you’re that far behind you have to create turnovers and get to the free-throw line.”

The Knights hit just four shots in the third quarter, allowing Garrison to creep back into the game. Behles’ second basket of the quarter pulled the Troopers to within four before a basket by senior Jenny Skees gave the Knights a 39-33 lead after three.

Garrison closed to within two points three times in the fourth, but a few key rebounds by Popinga kept the Troopers from getting any closer. Popinga grabbed five boards in the fourth quarter.

“I came into this game knowing there was some big girls on the other side and I just knew I had to do what I was supposed to do being one of the tallest players on the team,” Popinga said. “That’s what I’m there for.”

Said Olson: “She played amazing tonight. She rebounded really well, moved the ball really well and she had some nice jumpers when she was in stride.”

The Knights open their District 12 schedule at Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. Garrison plays at Underwood on Friday.

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.