GROWING PAINS: Crusaders fall to Jordan, still learning how to finish off games

MAYER – With a young group of players, learning to close out games takes a while. That’s the situation the Mayer Lutheran girls basketball team finds themselves in as the end of the regular season looms on the horizon.

Taking on one of the top teams in the MN River Conference, the Crusaders gave the Jordan Jaguars all they could handle, and more. In the end, Mayer Lutheran came out just short as Jordan made a few more plays down the stretch in a 52-48 victory Tuesday night.

“I thought the girls did great,” Mayer Lutheran coach Kris Gustin said. “The first time we played them, they went 12-for-28 from 3-point range. That’s just way too many to give up. I thought defensively we made some really good adjustments. The girls responded well with what we asked them to do.”

“We had the lead, and it got tough,” senior Symone Jopp said. “We lost, but in the end, it was a good game for us and we got better from it.”

The Crusaders controlled the game for most of the first half, and held a five-point lead at the break. To open the second half, Mayer Lutheran scored on back-to-back possessions with buckets from Brooke Paulsrud and Olivia Tjernagel to make it 32-23 Crusaders.

Although the Crusaders have had their struggles offensively at times this season, they seem to be trending in the right direction, as Paulsrud and Lexi Schermann give Mayer Lutheran a one-two punch at the point guard position.

“Lexie comes in at the break, and it kind of disrupts the flow,” Gustin said. “Nothing against her, it’s just another player in our rotation. We just have to get used to playing together. I think we’ve seen the fruits of that patience paying off as we seem to be turning the corner to try and jell at the right time.”

Paulsrud and Schermann give Mayer Lutheran options at point guard. With Paulsrud stepping up her game lately, it’s allowed the Crusaders to draw up looks for Schermann as she can play off the ball, which opens things up for everyone.

“Either one of them can run things from the top,” Gustin said. “When Brooke is up at the top, our offense runs smoothly and we can run Lexie off of screens. We also have Emma and Morgan who can hit down the outside shot. There’s a lot of weapons there. It’s coming together.”

After a strong start to the second half for Mayer Lutheran, Jordan fought back. A 9-0 run by the Jaguars gave them a 41-36 lead as the Crusaders nearly went five minutes without a point.

Kat Brown-Erdal was a big reason for the run by the Jaguars. Whether she was scoring or not, Brown-Erdal took over the game for Jordan.

“In the second half, Jordan came out with a little bit more energy,” Gustin said. “Really, the difference in the game was Kat Brown-Erdal. She’s a phenomenal ball player. They made some adjustments to give her some open looks, and she’s a playmaker. She kind of took the game over. They had that little run where we turned the ball over a few too many times and they took advantage of it. That’s the way basketball goes.”

A 3-pointer from Emma Lade snapped the drought for the Crusaders, bringing them within two with just over four minutes to go. Jordan answered back with a 3-pointer from Sidney Bendzick, pushing the Jaguars’ lead back to five.

When it looked like Mayer Lutheran would let things slip away, Morgan Chmielewski answered back with a clutch 3-pointer of her own.

A steal from Jopp and put back from Chmielewski tied the game at 48 with 57.3 seconds left, but the Crusaders couldn’t make the big play late. Jordan would go 4-for-4 from the free throw line to get the win, leaving Mayer Lutheran searching for answers in close games down the stretch.

“We look at our team, and sure, we’ve played 22 games this year, but we’re still young,” Gustin said. “We have one senior. We’re playing two freshmen and a sophomore a lot of minutes. We still have those growing pains. We have to figure out how to win games.”

Despite the loss, there’s plenty of things the Crusaders can take away from it. A battle against one of the top teams in the MRC only will help them get better as the season goes on.

“You want to win, but this game certainly made us better,” Gustin said. “Competing against a team of that caliber, we were right there with them the whole game. It is a good matchup for us.”

“It helps us get better,” Jopp said. “It helps us figure out what we need to work on going forward.”

The Crusaders have four games left on the schedule in the regular season, three of which will be on the road. As the postseason approaches, Gustin knows how important it is to learn how to finish off games to get ready for another deep postseason run.

“We have four games left,” Gustin said. “We win two of those games, and I think we put ourselves in a good position in the section. We had an opportunity to do that tonight, but we just have to learn how to finish games. That’s part of that learning process.”

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