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Wagner-mania at state tourney

Just call it “Wagner-mania.”

In almost 40 years of covering high school sports, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like what happened Wednesday, March 19, at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.

First, there were no seats available on press row just minutes before the Class AA state quarterfinal girls’ basketball game between the New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva Panthers and the Pequot Lakes Patriots.

There are usually open seats for state quarterfinal games. But media row was filled for the matchup between the Patriots and Panthers. And it quickly became apparent that the attraction was NR-H-E-G senior guard Carlie Wagner.

Many Pequot Lakes fans remember Wagner for scoring 48 points in the Panthers’ win over the Patriots in the third-place game in the spring of 2012. Wagner said that game was memorable since it was her first trip to state.

The following season Wagner topped her single-game state tournament record with 50 points in the Class AA title win over Braham.

So what would she do for an encore in her final state tournament appearance? How about scoring 53 points in this year’s 100-68 state quarterfinal win over the Patriots. The senior eventually finished the tournament with a record 130 total points after scoring 41 in a semifinal win and 36 in the championship victory over Kenyon-Wanamingo on Saturday, March 22.

In the quarterfinal matchup against Pequot Lakes, Wagner made just two of 10 three-point shots in the first half. But she still totaled 26 points in the first half, which was close between the two high-scoring teams.

“There’s great competition at state, and that brings up my game.” Wagner said of her success at state. “(Pequot Lakes) had a good team with a strong post presence. We had to come out in the second half and play our game. I was thinking ‘finally’ when my shots started falling.”

Her coach, John Schultz, agreed.

“Carlie didn’t shoot well right away, but then she came around,” said Schultz, who added that he wasn’t surprised by her success at state. “She likes big crowds. She didn’t mind playing in front of Pam Borden (U of M women’s basketball coach who was in attendance).”

Wagner will attend the U of M next year, where she will play basketball.

Wagner made four of six three-point attempts in the second half, and added another 27 points to her total, primarily behind the strength of making 13 of 15 free throws.

“She’s just a real good basketball player and she has good kids around her,” Pequot Lakes coach Jon Dale said of Wagner, who was chosen the Associated Press Player of the Year. “We tried everything on her, even a triangle-and-two (defense).”

It was a pair of free throws with 6:51 remaining that helped Wagner exceed her previous record with her 51st point to give the Panthers an 89-62 lead. She then added a pair of free throws with 5:51 left.

“I didn’t really notice (the record) until the crowd went crazy,” Wagner said as she was surrounded by more than a dozen members of the media after the game. “I couldn’t do it without my teammates. It’s exciting, but it’s not a personal thing. Right now I’m just taking it one game at a time. All I want to do is keep moving on.”

Surprisingly, NR-H-E-G keep Wagner and its other starters in the game despite maintaining a 30-point advantage in the final minutes. That decision frustrated the Patriots, who went into a stall offense in hopes of keeping the Panthers from reaching the 100-point mark. The starters from both teams were finally pulled with 2:59 left.

Instead of dwelling on that unfortunate incident, I would rather finish my column complimenting the Patriots on their successful season as they finished 23-7 overall.

“Our team played well this season,” Dale said. “Our seniors do not have a thing to hang their heads about. They had great careers. They played their hearts out, and they’re good role models for the younger players.”

Those three seniors are Kayla Miller, who finished with 25 points in the state quarterfinal, and Vanessa Lane and Katie White, who each had 19 points against the Panthers.

The senior trio played well to end the season, combining for 61 points in the Section 8AA title win over Hawley, and then 63 points in the state quarterfinal loss.