The Mitchell High School girls basketball team’s one-point win over Watertown on Jan. 22 was a learning experience.
It trailed by six points heading into the fourth quarter, but led by increased defensive intensity and rebounds turning into transition offense, the Kernels kept what ended up being a 10-game win streak alive. Mitchell escaped with a win, but it also showed flaws that coach Cole Knippling addressed through the season.
At 7 p.m. today at the Corn Palace, the Kernels will put those improvements to the test against the Arrows in the Class AA SoDak 16. The winner advances to the state tournament against either Sioux Falls O’Gorman or Sioux Falls Lincoln.
“That game was a big learning experience for us,” Knippling said. “A lot of times our posts were stacked on top of each other and we didn’t have very good spacing. Hopefully we’ll have better spacing this time around. I think we definitely learned from that game and got better going forward.”
Mitchell (14-6) lost four of its final five regular season contests, though they came to the top-four seeds in games the Kernels had a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Watertown’s 6-14 record is somewhat deceiving given how closely its played against AA’s top teams. With 6-foot Maggie Heesch in the post and improved guard play, the Arrows have single-digit losses to four of the top-seven seeds.
“They can compete with some good teams. We’ll have to be ready to roll and be strong, especially rebounding-wise,” Knippling said. “You look when we played them the first time, we shot poorly. … I’d like to think there’s a better version of us this time around hopefully.”
That better version could partly be due to an improved game plan against Watertown’s 2-3 zone that gives more space to Macy Kempf, who was held to 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting. It could also be from better 3-point shooting after the Kernels shot 2-for-14 from 3-point range in the first meeting, or simply having Adaya Plastow back to full health after she suffered a face injury in early January that required her to wear a mask against the Arrows.
The Kernels also hope to avoid a slow start. They led 9-6 after the first quarter and 16-14 at halftime, but being unable to pull away allowed Watertown to grab the momentum with a big third quarter.
Mitchell has been hindered by slow starts at times. And while it often mounts a comeback, with heightened pressure and a state tournament bid on the line, Knippling recognizes the importance of not needing to rely on another comeback.
That said, he praised his team’s start during a 17-10 first-quarter lead over Yankton in its last win.
“I think it’s important in this game, maybe more than most games to have a fast start to release those nerves,” Knippling said, noting he hopes to see improved defensive intensity through the entire game. “If you’re not shooting well or not scoring early, then that stuff can compound.”
Mitchell has an unblemished record against teams with a sub-.500 record, in part due to its second-half play. It’s also 6-3 at the Corn Palace, winning five of its last six home contests.
“I think the fact we know that we can play with anybody and never out of a game, I think that’s important to know,” Knippling said. “We’ve had games where we got down early and we can do what it takes to get back in it.”