NEW ULM - The Minnesota Valley Lutheran girls' basketball team entered Friday's Tomahawk Conference game against Sleepy Eye St. Mary's looking for a way to put together a fast start.
The Chargers did just that, then never looked back in a 58-35 victory.
MVL scored the first 15 points of the contest, after which it never let St. Mary's get any closer than seven points the rest of the way.
"We've been waiting for a start like that really all year," MVL head coach Dave Biedenbender said. "I think our defense really did it to get out to that start. Offensively we stumbled a bit in the first half, but defensively we got out to a great start."
The Chargers' ability to build such a big lead was largely due to a relentless defensive effort, which created a number of turnovers by the Knights, including on seemingly routine plays.
"Coach always tells us to hustle as much as we can, and I think we did," MVL junior Charlotte Pfingsten said. "We all play as a team and we try to do our best... We really focused on getting out on the outside shooters and keeping our defense up, because we always want to try our best and hustle to the ball."
Mariah Schoof hit two of her team-high four 3-pointers to help the Chargers pull out to a 9-0 lead, with a breakaway layup by Pfingsten (five points) increasing the lead to 11-0 and forcing the Knights to call a time out.
MVL sophomore Anna Munsen powered her way to two baskets in the paint to cap the home team's opening run.
The first half was played as if it was divided into two quarters, with St. Mary's counteracting the Chargers' strong start with a rally in the last few minutes of the half.
With the score at 15-0 with 10 minutes remaining in the half, Knights senior Maddy Helget scored seven of the game's next nine points to kick-start her team's offense.
The Chargers upped the lead to 22-7, but the Knights put together a 10-2 run to close out the half, with Helget hitting a buzzer-beating 3 from the corner as the half came to an end to make the score 24-17.
"It felt good, especially after I just got beat on an easy bunny shot for them," Helget said of her buzzer beater. "We were able to take the momentum going into halftime, but we were unable to capitalize on it, obviously."
MVL regrouped at halftime, launching a 20-3 run to open the second half that effectively put the game away.
"At halftime our goal was, 'Let's not just try to maintain a seven-point lead, let's play good defense and extend it,'" Biedenbender said. "We were able to do that and then get out in front by quite a bit, so I attribute that to our good defense."
During the first eight minutes of the half, St. Mary's managed a single Helget 3-pointer against MVL's feisty defense.
The Chargers had a balanced offensive effort in the second half, with nine different players contributing points. In contrast, the Knights had only four players enter the scorebook during the entire game.
"Just give them a lot of credit, they came out and put a lot of pressure on us, we didn't handle it as well as we probably should have, and that's what's going to happen when you don't handle the ball very well," St. Mary's head coach Bruce Woitas said.
Four different players contributed three steals apiece to lead MVL's aggressive defensive effort - Chrissy Biedenbender, Martha Johnston, Pfingsten and Munsen. On a number of occasions, the Chargers turned their steals into fast-break opportunities, though the Knights' Nikki Carr did a good job racing back on defense to shut down some of them.
"We really trust our team, we know where they're going to be - usually when we get a steal, someone's running up the court right away, so we usually know that someone's going to be there and we can trust everybody," Pfingsten said.
Schoof had a team-high 12 points for MVL and added three assists and four rebounds. Johnston had 11 points, Munsen (six rebounds) finished with 10 points and Sarah Burk and Alexa Alfred each added six points. Nicole Moldstad (two points) and Larissa DeRousse (four points) each had three assists.
"We're very interchangeable, we're very versatile in who we can put in the game at different times," Coach Biedenbender said. "The girls are buying into the fact that we're a big team here, and I think we've got good chemistry working. Nobody cares who gets the credit, and everybody just works hard at it."
Helget finished with 18 points for the Knights, with the team's scoring rounded out by Jessica Schmitz (10 points, nine rebounds), Jenna Hose (four points, seven rebounds) and Jamie Marti (three points).
St. Mary's (7-4, 3-2) will continue its conference schedule with a game at Cedar Mountain/Comfrey on Tuesday.
"Hopefully we can take this loss and learn from it and realize what we need to do," Helget said. "Cedar Mountain's one of those underdog teams that can definitely come away with something, and we don't want another tough loss like this. We just want to bounce back right away."
MVL (11-1, 5-0) will host Wabasso on Tuesday in a match-up of the conference's top two teams.
"We feel pretty good about where we're at as far as being 11-1 now, but we know we've got a lot of tough games coming up here in the conference - number one being Tuesday against Wabasso," Coach Biedenbender said. "We want to keep working and keep working to get better, but we're definitely happy with where we're at."