Park girls basketball: Eastview dashes Wolfpack's state tourney hopes - again
Park wanted very badly to celebrate its first-ever section championship, on Thursday, March 7, at Hamline University's Hutton Arena, but Eastview didn't let it happen.
The top-seeded and second-ranked Lightning imposed their will early over second-seeded and 10th-ranked Park in the Section 3AAAA championship game and earned a 61-45 win. After falling behind by as many as 20 points, the Wolfpack cut their deficit to eight points in the second half, but couldn't get any closer as Eastview hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final six minutes to keep the Wolfpack at bay.
"We wanted this for our seniors, for our coaches and for each other," Park junior Temi Ogunrinde said. "We're a family and I love my team. We've been through it from the bottom when we couldn't win a game to where we are now, winning so many. But, not being able to win the game that really matters is not a good feeling."
This year's section final was a rematch of last year's title game. In that one, Park overcame a 13-point first-half deficit and held a lead with under three minutes remaining, but Eastview escaped with a 52-47 victory.
This time around, Eastview built a 16-point first-half lead and led by as many as 20 points before Park charged back. Down 42-22 after a corner 3-pointer by Eastview sophomore Madison Guebert with 14:55 remaining in the game, Park went on a 13-3 run over the next six minutes. An offensive rebound and put-back off a missed free throw by Park junior Sydney Lamberty made it a 45-35 game with 8:52 remaining. After trading a pair of buckets, a runner by senior guard Larissa Lurken made the score 47-39 with 6:26 on the clock. But, that's as close as Park would get. The Lightning drew fouls on their next three possessions and went 6-for-6 from the line as the Wolfpack came away empty-handed on their end of the court.
"We worked so hard for this," Lurken said. "We prepped our whole season for this - all the hours of practice and all the games - just knowing we wanted to be here. But, we are a really good team and always will be."
Park head coach Stephanie Tolkinen said the game came down to execution, not effort.
"We practice all week long, all season long for this game," she said. "You just hope you can have a little better result. But, I'm proud of the kids because they left it all on the court. I never question effort with these kids. I just felt we didn't execute. I think nerves definitely played a part of it."
Lurken had a team-high 15 points in the loss, but was the only Park player in double figures. Lamberty netted nine points and Ogunrinde scored eight points - all in a four-minute stretch spearheading the Wolfpack's second-half comeback.
Tolkinen said she was frustrated because there were "too many kids that weren't looking to score."
"Our kids were open, but they were not willing to shoot," she said. "I don't know if they were afraid of failure or what. They're supposed to take those shots. I never tell one kid not to shoot. We need them to shoot or there may be a turnover. You can't pass up open looks."
Guebert and junior Hanna Metoxen led Eastview with 19 points each. In addition, senior post player Tyra Johnson posed problems for Park - scoring inside and outside - totaling 14 points.
The Park girls basketball team has never reached the state tournament. Prior to last season, Park last played in a section championship game in 2008, led by University of Minnesota alum Jackie Voigt, who was in the stands for Thursday's section final. That year Park was the top seed in the section, but lost 51-35 - to Eastview.
"We wanted it bad," Ogunrinde said. "It sucks having to go through this again. We worked so hard and having the same result really sucks. We never gave up. No matter what the score was we never stopped fighting, because we believed we could do it. In the end, our shots didn't fall and theirs did. But, we tried our hardest."
Tolkinen said she is confident Park can return to the section championship game again next year and make another run at a first state tournament berth.
"We'll be here again next year if I have anything to say about it," she said.
The loss ended the careers of two Park seniors - Lurken and post player Courtney Waldo. Waldo played on the varsity team for the past three years. Lurken, a starter for the varsity team since ninth grade, finished her career as Park's all-time leading scorer. The four-time all-conference guard signed to play Division 1 basketball for Kent State University in Ohio next fall.
"I think this year was an amazing way to end my career," Lurken said. "I think we had a really good season. Even though we didn't quite make it to state we did very, very well this season. I'm really proud of my teammates."
Park slumped to 3-24 in 2009-10, but has gone 58-28 over the last three seasons. Tolkinen said the outgoing seniors impacted the growth of success of the program and would be greatly missed.
"They're very good leaders," Tolkinen said. "They participate in everything we do, they put in the time and they're good role models. Those kids don't come around all the time. We're very fortunate to have these kids in our program."
Lurken said after the game it hadn't hit her that she played her last basketball game for Park.
"I'm just so proud of where I come from and I'll never forget this team," Lurken said. "It's been one of the best experiences of my life."