After coming off of a tough loss to the St. Croix Central Panthers on Friday, Feb. 8, the Ellsworth Panthers regrouped and challenged the Prescott Cardinals to a hard-fought battle that most fans weren't expecting after the two teams' early January matchup.
The Cardinals sent the Panthers home with a 93-47 loss on Friday, Jan. 4, but were only able to sneak away with a 61-51 victory on Monday, Feb. 11, when the Highway 10 rivals met for the second time this season.
The Cardinals took a 27-20 lead at halftime but watched that lead dwindle to two points in the second half when their hosts attacked their 1-3-1 zone defense and forced several turnovers on the end of the court.
"The kids really bought into our game plan and executed," Ellsworth's head coach Jason Janke said. "I was really proud of how hard they played. (Prescott) didn't get anything handed to them. We fought every inch of the floor for 36 minutes, and that's what any coach asks for."
Ellsworth's Emma Swanson was instrumental in creating the Panthers' second half comeback. The senior co-captain led the Panthers on both ends of the court by vocally guiding her team's 2-3 defense and attacking the rim on offense.
"Emma was a key cog tonight, and I think she's a good example for the younger girls," Janke said. "She's played so much basketball that nothing rattles her."
Swanson finished with 10 points in Monday night's game, while her team was led in scoring by sophomore Autumn Earney who recorded 14 points.
The Cardinals also leaned on their senior co-captain Haylee Yaeger who always had an answer for any Ellsworth run. Yaeger led all scorers with 25 points and contributed six points to Prescott's late 16-8 run.
The Panthers received one late 3-pointer from Kaitlyn Nugent, which brought the Panthers within 11 before the three-minute mark, but Ellsworth was unable to hit another field goal until Emily Mallon completed an old-fashioned 3-point play once both teams had cleared their benches.
Prescott may have left Ellsworth with its 17th win on the season, but the Panthers came across an important realization that they'll carry with them into the playoffs.
"They were a top-10 team in the state for a good portion of the season, so to only lose by 10 to them before tournament time, that's a big indicator that we can be in any game," Swanson said.
The Panthers have shown their potential at various points in the season, but will now be challenged with putting their best play forward when it counts.
When asked how he'll keep his team from playing flat the rest of the season, Janke joked, "If I had the answer to that, I'd sell a book and live on a beach.
"I think we just have to keep working hard. It's a fun group to be around, and if I've learned anything over the years, it's that your team will keep playing when the players want to keep coming to practice. Everyone wants to play games, but if the kids keep wanting to come to practice, then there'll be a motivating factor in there."
Ellsworth will host the Somerset Spartans on Thursday, Feb. 14, for their final regular season game of the season before heading to Baldwin-Woodville High School on Tuesday, Feb. 19, for the first round of WIAA Division 3 regionals. Ellsworth and Baldwin-Woodville split their regular season matchups, and the Panthers are hoping to win the season series against the playoff hosts.
"I'm really excited," Nugent said. "It's always fun playing against them, and it's a team we've beaten. But that game is in the past. It's a new game, and anything can happen."
The Cardinals will travel to Osceola on Thursday before wrapping up their regular season in Glenwood City on Friday. Prescott will host the winner of No. 7 Osceola vs. No. 10 Barron on Friday, Feb. 22, in the second round of regionals.
Prescott and Ellsworth fans may have to wait until next season to watch their teams compete again, but Monday night's game made it clear that the Highway 10 rivalry lives on.
Scoring for Prescott: Yaeger 25; Bella Lenz 14; Allie Murphy 13; Tori Benck, Mckenna Johnson, Kaelyn Lewis 3.
Spring Valley 66, Elmwood/Plum City 46
The Spring Valley Cardinals were victorious in the most recent chapter of the Spring Valley vs. Elmwood/Plum City girls' basketball rivalry, which occurred on Monday night when the Cardinals left Plum City with a 20-point victory.
The Cardinals will finish their regular season in Glenwood City on Thursday before traveling to Cochrane-Fountain City on Tuesday, Feb. 19, for the opening round of the WIAA Division 4 regionals.
EPC will host the Mondovi Buffaloes on Thursday and play its final regular season game in Elk Mound on Friday before facing the No. 1-seeded Eleva-Strum Cardinals in the WIAA Division 5 regional tournament.