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KARLL: Don’t underestimate the Kernel girls after unexpected turnaround

Mitchell's Tess Limberg drives past Sturgis' Loralee Stock during a SoDak 16 game on March 1 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The Mitchell High School girls basketball team begins the Class AA state tournament today, and is undoubtedly playing its best basketball of the season.

Yet, following a 54-41 loss at Brookings on Jan. 24, it would’ve been surprising to hear Mitchell was still playing any sort of basketball in mid-March because that loss dropped the Kernels to 5-6 on the season.

But a switch flipped as the once floundering Kernels rattled off eight wins in 10 games, including a 60-35 defeat of Sturgis in the SoDak 16. Four of the top-five teams in Class AA also went 8-2 but none of those schools topped that record.

The No. 8 Kernels (13-8) face top-seeded Sioux Falls O’Gorman (18-3) at 2 p.m. today in Rapid City, pitting two of the hottest teams in the state against each other.

One of Mitchell’s losses to end the season came by 16 to O’Gorman, but the Kernels have been in -- and thrived in -- this position before. Mitchell is 4-0 when playing a team for a second time, including a 65-53 win over No. 2 Harrisburg on Feb. 8, which came just a month after it lost by 28 to the Tigers.

“I can tell the players, ‘This is how we have to guard, this is what we have to do to defend and this is where we can attack,’ ” Mitchell coach Wes Morgan said about playing a team for a second time.

The upset of Harrisburg was part of Mitchell’s six-game winning streak, which highlighted the improvements it made on both ends of the floor. The change didn’t take a spirited speech that’d you see in a movie or a superstar returning from injury, though.

“I think the focus they’re putting toward basketball is really good,” Morgan said.

However it happened, it worked, with Mitchell finding solutions to cover its weaknesses. It took a team effort, with a new face seemingly stepping up every game. More consistent offensive contributions from Mitchell’s six seniors made up for a lack of a go-to scorer. The Kernels ended the season scoring 53.3 points per game and are 12-1 when scoring at least 50 points.

The undersized Kernels also relied on an improving full-court press, which by the end of the season, had made nearly every team which walked into the Corn Palace look overwhelmed and unprepared to face it.

“We’ve been able to get teams to turn the ball over,” Morgan said. “We’ve been able to capitalize off layups and easier shots.”

Mitchell allowed 50.9 points per contest, helping it to a 9-1 home record, including winners of its last six home contests.

Despite the team effort, Mackenzie Miller was the only Kernel to land on the all-ESD team.

Tess Limberg, Payton Morgan, Tayler Factor and Jordyn Cranny all averaged at least five points per game, too, while Factor consistently looked like the best defensive player on the floor. However, even her poking the ball out from behind -- leading to 2.5 steals per game -- was due to the pressure the Kernels put on opposing teams in the backcourt, which included Mitchell’s sixth senior, Mandy Schmidt.

It’s evident the Kernels’ success in the state tournament will be determined by its six seniors, who all play at least 18 minutes per game. While each has had their struggles this season, they’ve also shown what they’re capable of when everything clicks at the right time.

The Kernels might be the lowest seed, but they may be among the most dangerous teams when the state tournament starts.