NEOLA, Iowa — Suffering through a prolonged shooting slump, the Tri-Center girls team still found itself clinging to a slim lead in the final minutes.
The game plan from there was simple: Hold on to the basketball.
The Trojans refused to risk another errant attempt in the final four minutes of their 48-38 victory over Audubon on Tuesday evening. Ahead 37-34, Tri-Center went 9 of 12 at the free-throw line down the stretch while frustrating the visitors with its stall tactics.
“Sometimes,” Tri-Center coach Julius Michalik said, “you have to grind it out.”
Neither side found much in the way of offensive consistency all night. The squads combined to shoot 17 for 58 in the first half (29.3 percent) and at a 33-percent clip overall. Just 3 of 20 3-point tries found their way through the net.
Nikki Paulson shook off a 1-for-5 first half to put her team in position to claim a key early win in the Western Iowa Conference race. After Audubon took a 31-30 lead on Kyra Obermeier’s layup with 1:41 left in the third quarter, the Tri-Center junior guard countered on a trey from the top of the key. She added a driving layup on the next possession to stake the home team to a 35-31 lead it would not relinquish.
“We had people that weren’t really on for shooting, but we all worked together for (the win),” Paulson said. “You’ve got to keep your confidence up. It’s all mental, it really is.”
Marissa Haubrich brought the Wheelers (4-3, 2-1 WIC) within a bucket after converting a layup to open the fourth quarter. Tri-Center’s Haley Larsen hit a short jumper from the baseline, and Audubon’s Susie Bylund later hit a free throw before the Trojans (4-1, 3-0) shifted to keep-away mode.
Senior post player Shelby Sullivan was one of the few players to escape the shooting woes. Her 6-of-9 effort led to a team-high 12 points. Guard Kaylee Grote chipped in nine points, and Alex Larsen knocked in six foul shots in the fourth quarter to finish with eight.
Emily Nelsen paced Audubon with 15 points. Her spinning finger roll in the third quarter turned into a three-point play, and the senior added a mid-range bank shot shortly thereafter to bring the Wheelers within 30-29.
“We did a pretty good job offensively for a little bit in the second half,” Audubon coach Kim Subbert said. “Then they pulled the ball out and we had to foul them. They just knocked their free throws down.”
Audubon finished second in the WIC last year behind Missouri Valley. It beat Tri-Center twice — 48-45 and 41-36 — in comeback fashion.
Paulson said the Trojans learned their lesson from those losses. As Michalik emphasized during a timeout, quick and ill-advised shots would not be their undoing this time.
“We started realizing how big this win was for us,” Paulson said. “We knew if we got this win, we’d be closer to the title for the conference.”
Tri-Center will be the favorite in its final two contests before Christmas. After that, the Trojans plan to stay in contention for their first regular-season WIC crown since the 2004-05 campaign.
Michalik laughed, saying it would be nice to score a little more along the way.
“I think we got a little lucky because (Audubon) didn’t really hit any outside shots today,” Michalik said. “When they hit a couple outside shots, it changes the game.”
Audubon (4-3, 2-1).............................7 10 14 7—38
At Tri-Center (4-1, 3-0)..........................11 9 15 13—48
A: Susie Bylund 2-12 2-4 7, Haillie Anthofer 1-7 0-0 2, Emily Nelsen 6-11 3-5 15, Bailey Nelson 0-0 0-2 0, Kyra Obermeier 5-13 0-0 10, Kasey Porsch 0-1 0-0 0, Marissa Haubrich 1-5 2-2 4. Totals: 15-49 7-13 38.
TC: Alex Larsen 1-7 6-7 8, Emily Baatz 0-4 0-0 0, Kaylee Grote 3-13 2-5 9, Anna Spomer 0-0 0-0 0, Haley Larsen 3-5 0-0 6, Morgan Sullivan 1-3 0-0 2, Nikki Paulson 4-9 2-2 11, Shelby Sullivan 6-9 0-0 12. Totals: 18-50 10-14 48.
3-point goals: A 1-7 (Bylund 1-6, Obermeier 0-1), TC 2-13 (Grote 1-5, Alex Larsen 0-3, Baatz 0-3, Paulson 1-2). Total fouls: A 15, TC 13. Fouled out: none. Technical fouls: none. Turnovers: A 19, TC 12.