As the experience grows, so does the confidence.
The Chi-Hi girls basketball snapped a mini two-game skid with a 69-63 nonconference victory over Holmen on Tuesday evening at Chi-Hi.
The Cardinals (6-4) took control of the contest with the Vikings early in the second half with a 14-2 run, turning a one-point halftime advantage to a 50-37 lead with 9:50 to go. But Holmen (7-3) battled back, closing the deficit to three points with 1:24 to go. But the young Cardinals ran the clock down and hit their free throws in the final minutes to clinch the team’s sixth victory of the season.
Alexis Zenner led Chi-Hi with a career-best 20 points while Caelan Givens scored 18 points, Aaliyah McMillan added 13 points and Brooke Rooney scored seven in the win.
“It’s nice to see an even attack,” Chi-Hi coach Becca Bestul said of the offense. “We had a bunch of kids that were up around those double-digit numbers and that’s great to see. Caelan is a phenomenal player, she makes some great moves but some of those other players when they get into it, we can score a lot of points and I love to see flashes of that.”
Zenner, Givens and McMillan scored all 14 points of the early second-half surge while the Cardinal defense limited the Vikings to two points — a pair of free throws from Caitlyn Young at the 15:50 mark — for the first 8:29 of the half before Sydney Jahr scored for Holmen. Chi-Hi answered immediately with a 3-pointer at the top of the key from Zenner.
The Cardinals were up-tempo during the run, turning rebounds into scoring opportunities at the other end of the floor quickly with a lethal fast break.
“Running on them was a big key to the game,” Zenner said. “Pushing the ball up, knowing where everybody is. Knowing everybody’s strengths and pushing the ball, running and doing our thing.”
Holmen led by as many as six points early in the first half before the Cardinals battled back. The teams stayed within a few points of each other, with a basket from McMillan off an assist from Zenner at the buzzer sending the Cardinals into halftime with a 36-35 lead.
Plenty of scorers
The 5-foot-7 sophomore guard Zenner scored 14 of her points after halftime while McMillan scored 11 of hers in the first half. Givens entered the game leading Chippewa County in scoring at 19.8 points per game with four Cardinal players (Givens, Zenner, McMillan and Ashley Hanley) averaging at least 8.8 points per contest.
Zenner was Chi-Hi’s go-to scorer on Tuesday, showing a fearlessness around the basket on offense while also locking up with Paulson on the defensive end.
“Caelan is awesome on offense, she’s our leading scorer. But Alexis when she turns it on really helps us,” Bestul said.
Holmen’s Young and Paulson were the top two scorers in the contest with 27 and 22 points, respectively, and combined for 10 3-pointers. Kendra Leis added 12 points for the Vikings. That trio entered Tuesday’s game averaging nearly 45 points per game, roughly 75 percent of the team’s scoring.
The Vikings — currently second in the Mississippi Valley Conference to La Crosse Aquinas — put the pressure on with four 3-pointers and one set of three free throws after being fouled on a long-range attempt by Young in a 3-minute stretch late, but the Cardinals hit 6 of 8 free throws in the final 2:24 and ran down much of the clock with long possessions.
“I’m starting to see more maturity out of our kids,” Bestul said. “We have two sophomore point guards (Givens and Hanley). Earlier in the season there were times where those sophomores were a little afraid and now I’m starting to see a little more maturity out of them. I’m starting to see them handle it when there’s pressure like that. We hit our free throws at the end of the game, that helped us. I think that playing a team like Holmen is a big test for us going into the second part of the season.”
The path ahead
Chi-Hi is off to a 4-0 start in Big Rivers Conference play and hit the winter break as winners of 5 of its last 6 before falling last week in nonconference games to Janesville Parker and Neenah.
Chi-Hi plays four of its next five games overall on the road, beginning Saturday when the team returns to league action at River Falls. The team has just three more home games for the rest of the regular season (vs Menomonie on Jan. 26 and River Falls on Feb. 10).
“We still need to play a bit more together. Defensively we need to talk more, offensively we need to recognize each other’s strengths and play more to those strengths. We’re getting there,” Bestul said. “I’m seeing flashes of it. I think we need to finish every defensive possession, blocking out and getting defensive rebounds. But little things like that, fundamental things that as a team grows those happen.”