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Dynamic duo delivers for Wagner

Wagner's Ali Kuca, left, and Emily Brunsing, right, run up the court during a game Saturday in Yankton against Irene-Wakonda. Both players are leading the Red Raiders to a 10-3 start in Region 5A. (Marcus Traxler/Republic)

WAGNER — Wagner's Emily Brunsing and Ali Kuca have been playing basketball together since the third grade, when they were on the same team through Boys and Girls Club basketball.

And when they're on the floor together for the Red Raiders' girls varsity basketball team, the experience shows.

Both of the players are regularly double-double contributors for Wagner (10-3) and a key reason why the Red Raiders have won 10 of their last 11 games after an 0-2 start.

"Ever since we were little, we've been playing together," Kuca said. "It worked then and it works now."

Brunsing, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward, is regularly Wagner's lone post presence and is averaging 15.2 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per contest. Her fellow senior, the 5-foot-9 Kuca — a future Mount Marty women's basketball player — is averaging 19.2 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game and 4.8 assists per game.

Kuca is the team's main ball handler and point guard, while Brunsing plays down low. Wagner head coach Mike Koupal said in the seventh grade, those roles were reversed. At that time, Brunsing was the guard on the perimeter and Kuca was the inside player. Koupal described both players as being do-everything types for the team.

"Emily is probably playing a little out of position for us, but she's our tallest player," he said. "Ali has been the point guard since the start of last season, and they're both players that we can count on in almost every aspect of the game."

Brunsing — who is headed to play volleyball at Dakota Wesleyan in the fall — said she's pretty sure there's old videotapes of her playing basketball in the third grade with her longtime friend.

"Things have really changed since we were younger but I'd say that Ali works really well as a point guard and I just battle down low," she said. I either pass it or shoot it or kick it back out to her and she hits those nice outside looks."

Both players mentioned the non-verbal cues they have with each other to make plays. Kuca said they hardly have to say a word on the court to be in sync.

"That's just the years of experience we have together," she said, adding that Brunsing's dominance frees her up to shoot on the perimeter. "Defenses crash down on her and they need to because she's so good and it opens up my game."

Koupal said the team struggled in its two opening games of the season, with losses to Winner and West Central. After that, the Red Raiders found their form, winning eight games in a row. A loss to No. 2-ranked Mount Vernon/Plankinton stopped that streak on Jan. 26 but Wagner bounced back with an impressive win over Irene-Wakonda on Saturday at the Tri-Valley Conference Classic in Yankton.

"We're just didn't play very good defense in those first two games and we gave up some chances that I know we'd like to have back," he said. "Defensively, since then, we've been cranking it up and the good defense has been leading to some easy offensive baskets."

In the 75-53 victory Saturday, Kuca had a triple-double with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, while Brunsing had 20 points and 16 rebounds. On her future home court, Kuca had 16 points in the first quarter alone against the Eagles.

"When she catches fire, it's like she's shooting into the ocean," Koupal said.

Kuca, who is already a two-time all-state player in Class A, said she connected with the Mount Marty coaching staff, led by head coach and Dimock native Tom Schlimgen.

"I know something felt right and I knew that when I was going to choose a college, I had to be able to feel it in the gut and I knew that this was the one for me."

Koupal said the team is gaining confidence in themselves, something that will be key for driving Wagner into a strong Region 5A.

"Everyone is going to have an off night and Ali and Emily know their role," Koupal said. "They have to score for us and the other girls know that they have to get them the ball and they do a good job. Our team is gaining confidence and those two are leading the way."

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