An old adage states: "Nothing good ever came easy."
This was indeed true for the Benilde-St. Margaret's girls basketball team in the state opener on Wednesday afternoon, as the defending Class 3A champions teetered on the brink of elimination against Marshall before rallying to claim a 52-47 victory at Williams Arena.
"We survived," coach Bob Lyons said. "I credit our kids with hanging in there, fighting off adversity and getting a big win over a very good team."
In a rematch of the 2006 Class 3A final — also won by BSM — the Red Knights took a 2-0 edge on a layup by forward Khadijah Shumpert 22 seconds into the game, then did not lead again until past the midway point of the second half before pulling away.
"The first half was all about surviving," Lyons said. "We got into foul trouble early and had three of our starters on the bench for a big portion of the first half."
Yet, despite spotting Marshall a nine-point advantage just over eight minutes into the game, the Red Knights battled back to tie the score at 21-21 — only to witness an 8-0 Tigers run close out the first half with the southwest Minnesotans up 29-21.
"It was too bad we gave Marshall that late rally at the end of the half," Lyons said. "But we started the second half on a quick run that got us back into the game."
BSM cut the Tigers lead to two points on several occasions in the second half, but Marshall seemed to have an answer to every Red Knights challenge and continued to remain on top for nearly 10 minutes of the half.
It was not until forward Olivia Antilla stole the ball, drove to the lane and was fouled with her team down by a single point at 34-33 that BSM had its shot at retaking the advantage.
Antilla calmly and swiftly drained both of her attempts, putting the Red Knights on top for the first time in 28 minutes of play at 35-34 with 8:15 remaining in regulation.
Both sides passed the lead back-and-forth over the next seven minutes. Then guard Sidney Pilarski threw up an unlikely basket over a double-team, was fouled, then sank the ensuing free throw with 1:15 to go that put the Red Knights up 50-46.
"That Pilarski circus shot and foul was big," Lyons said.
The three points would prove to be Pilarski's only offense of the game, but it was big enough to be the eventual difference-maker in the contest.
Both sides traded a free-throw apiece as BSM was able to run out most of the game clock until Shumpert closed the scoring on the afternoon with 2.6 seconds left on a final free throw. After the razor-close win, fans, players and coaches let out a joyous sigh of relief.
"I don't think our kids ever doubted themselves," Lyons said. "I think our tournament experience was a big factor in being able to win today. We were down several times in last year's tournament and were able to come back to win and we were able to do that again today."
Antilla led all scorers in the game with 16 points, while Shumpert posted 12 points in 19 minutes of play and guard Grace Coughlin chipped in 10.
With the victory, second-seeded BSM improved to 25-5 on the season and now advances to a Class 3A semifinal match-up with No. 3 seed DeLaSalle at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The Islanders defeated the Red Knights, 54-50, in a regular-season meeting at BSM on Feb. 8.
The winner of Thursday's game moves on to the state final, scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Target Center.
Editor's Note: Check with St. Louis Park Patch on Thursday for continued coverage of the Benilde-St. Margaret's girls basketball team's run in the state tournament, as well as a video of Wednesday's win from a fan's-eye view.