It's been a season of ups and downs thus far for the Chi-Hi girls basketball team.
But Friday evening could only be categorized as an unquestioned high as the Cardinals dealt River Falls its first Big Rivers Conference loss of the season 68-66 in the regular season finale for both teams at Chi-Hi.
Caelan Givens scored a season-high 23 points, Aaliyah McMillan scored 12 of her 19 points in the second half and the duo of Maria Friedel and Alexis Zenner each added nine points in the win as the Cardinals (13-9, 7-5) halted River Falls' 18-game winning streak in the process.
"This one felt good," Chi-Hi coach Becca Bestul said of the win. "It was an entire season coming at this point. We've played OK in stretches but never put together a full game where we played together like we did tonight."
Chi-Hi raced out to a 39-29 halftime lead but had to hold off the hard-charging Wildcats down the stretch to secure the win. McMillan's bucket late after Givens weaved through the River Falls press while Chi-Hi nursed a two-point lead was the difference as the Cardinals won for the fourth time in five games.
Kylie Strop scored 21 points for River Falls as the Wildcats suffered their first defeat of the season to an opponent from the state of Wisconsin. River Falls (19-3, 11-1) lost early-season games to Goodhue (Minn.) and Stillwater (Minn.) before starting the sizable win streak at the beginning of December. The Wildcats were ranked fourth in Division 2 in the most recent Associated Press state poll and are a top seeded in the postseason.
"The thing that we did really well tonight is we were disciplined on defense," Bestul said. "When we went on our run early in the game and built that lead we boarded well, they only got one shot. We did everything we needed to do defensively against them.
"Strop still scored her points because she's a really good player, but I think for us it started (with) playing together on defense, boarding well and then pushing the ball."
Friday was an important night for the Cardinals as the program celebrated senior night, honoring the 10 senior players and managers in the program. Bestul admitted the team was emotional prior to the game and was curious to see which way the game would go against a top-level foe.
She liked what she saw.
"It was quite emotional and I said to my assistant it could go one of two ways — we could turn it into a phenomenal game or it might hurt us," Bestul said. "I'm glad it went the good way."
Chi-Hi has a week off before opening the Division 1 playoffs next Friday in the regional semifinals as a nine seed at eighth-seeded Eau Claire Memorial. The Old Abes won both matchups against the Cardinals during the regular season by a combined six points.
"These girls came out and fought tooth and nail the way I've been looking for, we've been needing all season," Bestul said. "That's the type of team I know we can be and that's the team we need going into the playoffs. So it's good timing."