The Ellsworth Panthers girls’ basketball team won its first playoff game in four years Tuesday night when they defeated the Altoona Railroaders at home 71-57. The last time the Panthers won a regional playoff game was over Prescott in 2015-2016. The win over the Railroaders is just the latest highlight for the Panthers during the program’s best season in a decade. Ellsworth weathered an early flurry of 3-pointers by Altoona to start the game and built a 15-point lead before halftime, which they held onto for most of the second half.
The win over No. 9-seeded Altoona (6-17, 5-9 Cloverbelt Conference) was the Panthers’ ninth of the season (9-14 overall, 5-9 in the Middle Border Conference), the most Ellsworth has had in almost a decade. They had 10 wins in 2010-2011, a mark they will match should they win their semifinal match-up on Friday as the No. 8 seed at No. 1 Arcadia (19-3, 12-0 Coulee Conference).
“It’s just so much fun, playing with my best friends and in front of all of our family,” said senior Kaitlyn Nugent about the win. “There are no other sports tonight so we had a big crowd. It’s just pure fun, honestly, and I don’t want it to end. So it was really fun, the energy we had, we started out hot and stayed pretty steady, we definitely played a really good game.”
Ellsworth got out to a quick lead as each of Nugent, junior Autumn Earney and senior Holly Carlson had early baskets. However, Altoona responded with five made 3-pointers (three by junior Averie Varsho and two from junior Daydrean Henrichs) in the first 6 minutes to take a 15-14 lead. After that barrage from the Railroaders, both Earney and Nugent said their team didn’t panic.
“We just needed to know to keep (Altoona’s) shooters under control and not let it get to our heads that they’re hitting threes, don’t get down, we just have to fight back and not let the lead get too big,” Earney said about falling behind after having a large early lead.
“At that point you just have to take a deep breath, slow it down on offense, make sure we’re executing what we need to, not rush anything, make sure we get a good basket, the more you rush things the more it gets out of hand and then once you’re out of control it can definitely go downhill from there,” Nugent added.
After head coach Jason Janke called timeout down 15-14, the Panthers went on a run and quickly opened up a seven-point lead after Nugent pulled up and hit a transition 3-pointer with 9 minutes left in the first half. From there, the Ellsworth defense came alive and put the clamps on as they forced several turnovers which resulted in Earney transition layups.
Ellsworth led 39-24 at halftime after allowing just nine points the final 12-plus minutes of the first half. Nugent led all scorers with 19 points including four made 3-pointers while Earney had 14. Varsho led the Railroaders with 15 points.
“I think we got their shooters under control and then we went on our run and had our confidence up and we were able to maintain that lead the whole time,” Earney said about the Panthers’ halftime lead.
Ellsworth maintained that 15-point lead for much of the second half. Altoona started the second half in a full-court press that they would use off-and-on for the rest of the game. It was semi-effective as they cut the Panthers’ lead to nine and eight points at different moments, but each time that happened Ellsworth would have an answer.
Earney drove and finished a layup that ended a scoring drought for the Panthers and put them back up double-digits. Nugent did the same when she hit a three with just over 6 minutes left in the game to move the lead back to 11. From there, Altoona never threatened thanks to consecutive 3-pointers by Carlson and Earney, as well as the Panthers making free throws. Ellsworth was able to empty the bench in the final minute and won 71-57.
Both Nugent and Earney agreed that it was one of the Panthers’ best-played games of the season, if not the best.
“Pretty close to it, like I said we stayed steady, we shot decent, I don’t think we missed many free throws,” Nugent said. “Here and there we didn’t have the greatest defense but we did what we needed to do.”
“By far one of the best,” Earney added. “Offensively we were patient and let the basketball take control and made our baskets and stuff.”
Ellsworth got a great effort from their senior leader, Nugent, from the opening tip until she was subbed out in the final minute. Nugent led the Panthers with 30 points which included six 3-pointers and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line. She was calm and controlled while breaking the press and said it was just one of those nights for her.
“I don’t know I guess I just couldn’t miss. I didn’t have to force too many of my own shots, I was pretty open, as a shooter I love being open and not have to work for it,” she said. “So my teammates were definitely doing a good job driving and dishing and I put the biscuit in the basket.”
Nugent and Earney combined for 57 of Ellsworth 71 points as Earney added 27, most of those points on layups in transition and from the free-throw line where she was 8-for-10. Carlson added nine points for Ellsworth including the three that helped her team extend their lead for good in the final minutes. Junior Sophie Vogel had three points while fellow junior Lily Puhrmann and sophomore Hayley Bach both had one point each.
Altoona made 13 3-pointers in the loss, led by Varsho who had a game-high 33 points and seven made 3-pointers. Sophomore Brittany Klatt added 14 points, 12 of which came in the second half, while Henrichs had nine points on three 3s.
Ellsworth travels to Arcadia on Friday for the regional semifinals. Should they win, the regional championship game would be Saturday, Feb. 29, at the high seed against the winner of No. 4 Elk Mound (17-5, 11-3 Dunn-St. Croix Conference) and No. 5 Adams-Friendship (13-8, 5-5 South Central Conference).