SYRACUSE – Conestoga and Auburn fans packed Syracuse’s gym Friday night in anticipation of a battle between two of southeast Nebraska’s top girls teams.
The Cougars and Bulldogs gave the hundreds of people in the stands that type of showdown on the court.
Auburn claimed a state tournament berth with a 51-42 victory in the C1-1 District Final. The Bulldogs (21-4) held off a pair of Conestoga comeback attempts to win the game. Conestoga erased a nine-point deficit in the first half and nearly wiped out a 13-point lead by Auburn in the second half.
Conestoga head coach Jahn Kile said the Cougars (19-6) knew they would need to withstand a possible early avalanche of points from Auburn. The Bulldogs had used a quick start to win an East Central Nebraska Conference Tournament semifinal game over CHS earlier in the month. Auburn tried to copy that feat Friday night, but Conestoga responded with several rallies during the evening.
“That was a big focus of ours coming in here,” Kile said. “We knew Auburn could put up a lot of points in a hurry, so we wanted to keep our focus and make sure we stayed in the game. I thought we did a really nice job of coming back from that early deficit in the first half.
“Things got away from us a little bit in the third quarter, and before we knew it we were down by double digits. The girls kept battling though. They never stopped believing that we could make another comeback against them.”
Auburn used a barrage of 3-pointers from Allie Binder, Meg Rieschick and Addison Gyhra to build an early 15-6 lead. Conestoga point guard Autumn Hardesty kept the Cougars within striking distance with her work on offense. She connected on three layups in the first quarter and began the second period with a deep 3-pointer.
Conestoga shut off Auburn’s scoring spigot for most of the second quarter. The team embarked on a 13-0 run in the initial 6:27 of the period to take a 19-15 lead. Sierra Kile, Sophia Svanda and Gloria Izquierdo all made baskets in the stretch. Both teams posted points in the final 90 seconds to deadlock things at 22-22 at the break.
Kile said Conestoga’s defensive work made a difference in the final eight minutes of the half. The team yielded just two offensive rebounds to Auburn in the period and forced AHS to go 1-of-8 from 3-point distance.
“I thought we played really tough defense in the first half, especially during the second quarter,” Kile said. “They came out and hit some shots early on, which they’re very capable of doing, but we stepped up and played lights-out on defense in the second quarter. We got exactly what we wanted with our work in that stretch of the game.”
Auburn recaptured the momentum in the third period. The Bulldogs scored on seven of their first eight trips to take a 33-24 lead. Ashley Teten created a 38-26 margin when she knocked down a 3-pointer as the third-quarter buzzer sounded.
Conestoga began to chip away at the deficit in the next six minutes. Izquierdo made a steal and fast-break layup to reduce the gap to 41-32, and she then drained a jumper off an assist by Hardesty on the next possession. Hardesty then found Kile open for a 3-pointer to make it 43-37 with 3:51 left.
The Cougars stayed within 47-41 after Hardesty made a steal and tossed a pass to Kile for a fast-break layup with 2:37 left. Auburn then made enough free throws to preserve the victory. AHS went 4-of-8 in the final 2:27 to clinch the program’s first state ticket in 40 years.
Kile generated 18 points, two rebounds, one steal and one assist for Conestoga. Hardesty tallied ten points, three assists, three boards and two steals, and Izquierdo had eight points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal.
Sophia Svanda scored four points and Anna Raisanen collected two points and five rebounds. Courtney Wagner secured two rebounds and Ellie Sachs hauled in one rebound.
The game was the final prep basketball contest for Hardesty, Svanda and Wagner. They helped the Cougars win 52 games in their four-year careers.
Conestoga 6 16 4 16 – 42
Auburn 15 7 16 13 – 51
Hardesty 4-6 1-2 10, Wagner 0-1 0-0 0, Izquierdo 3-6 1-2 8, Kile 4-15 7-8 18, Svanda 2-3 0-0 4, Raisanen 1-4 0-0 2, Sachs 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 14-35 9-12 4.
Binder 2-4 1-3 7, Rieschick 3-8 2-5 11, Reeves 2-6 6-9 10, Grant 0-2 0-0 0, Teten 2-7 3-5 8, Gyhra 3-7 0-0 8, Lambert 2-3 3-4 7. Totals 14-37 15-26 51.