Posted By: Jason Iacovino

It was pointed out to me by one of Owatonna's assistant coaches following the Huskies' 73-67 win over Rochester John Marshall on Saturday that had the coaches in Section 1AAAA decided to use the QRF computer rating system to determine seedings, the Huskies would've been No. 1 by virtue of the tie-breaker margin.

Instead, Owatonna did it the hard way.

I bring this up not to complain about a possible slight in the coaches' vote in putting a 22-2 Huskies team behind a 17-9 Lakeville North squad (Although full disclosure, I'm no fan of coaches vote to determine seeding and I personally believe Owatonna should have been No. 1).  It was a close call and I can understand why some would give the nod to the Panthers.

The reason I bring up the fact that an objective computer considers Owatonna to be as good, if not slightly better, than Lakeville North is to disspell any notion that Friday's Section 1AAAA title game will be a mere 36 minute formality leading up to Lakeville North's Mayo Civic Center celebration.

This isn't boys basketball or hockey--there's no reason for Owatonna to expect anything less than to leave Rochester victorious on Friday night.

How do we know this? Well, for one, the Panthers have been beatable this season.  And although the South Suburban Conference adds 6-7 losses to the average team's record compared to the Big 9, North limped into the postseason having lost their last two home games, including a 23-point loss to a Bloomington Kennedy team that had a much harder time with North's younger sister, Lakeville South, in its semifinal game in Sec. 2AAAA (Kennedy ended up winning 57-55).

The point is, while North is good, they aren't Rachel Banham, Cassie Rochelle, or Liz Podominick good. And they are no longer coached by Hall of Famer Andy Berkvam.

But the main reason Owatonna should walk into Taylor Arena with confidence on Friday is because they have been playing like a team that looks like they belong at State.  And by that I mean they are finding ways to win despite not playing their best.

This trend began in the final week of the regular season, when the Huskies needed to beat two inferior Big 9 opponents on the road (Winona and Albert Lea) to close out a perfect conference season.  The thing to keep in mind is when other Big 9 teams play Owatonna this year, it's been their Super Bowl.  The Winhawks gave the Huskies their best effort and Albert Lea led at halftime and had a season-defining performance by senior guard Bryn Woodside (25 points).  Despite defensive hiccups, the Huskies found a way to leave town with a 'W'.

Then came Saturday against JM.  Owatonna cruised to victory in their quarterfinal win over Rochester Century in a game that really only scared you because it was Century's third crack at OHS and that always makes a favorite nervous (If you don't believe me, ask the Waseca boys or the Hopkins girls).  The same was true of the Rockets, of course, but the difference is JM had the Huskies on the ropes in their most recent meeting on Jan. 24 and they, like Owatonna, came in with a 12-game winning streak.

And they have arguably the best player in the conference in sophomore Jamie Ruden, who can single-handedly take over a game.

My guess is if Owatonna and JM squared off 5 times this year, the Huskies would win at least 4 of those games, but the beauty of the tournament is it only takes 1 for an underdog.  Saturday had all the makings of that "1" for JM--all the pressure was on OHS and the Huskies, playing at home, watched a 10-point first half lead evaporate into a 10-point deficit with just over 8 minutes to play in the game.

And that was with three senior starters (Katlin Ptacek, Kyndal Cox, and Angie Farrier) saddled with 4 fouls each.  Meanwhile, JM's Ruden kept gettting stronger as the game went along.  With Ptacek and Cox on the bench, Owatonna was pressing offensively, settling for quick, low percentage shots.  A much taller JM lineup was controlling the rebounds on the defensive end.

Yet what Owatonna did in the final 8 minutes was precisely what teams that make deep tournament runs do--they did not panic and found a way to win a game they lost control of.  It started with sophomore Carlie Langeland, who knocked down a shot in the lane to cut JM's lead to 53-45.  Following a turnover, Langeland hit a 3-pointer on the next possession and the lead was down to 5.

A couple trips down the floor later, with just under 5 minutes to play, Langeland knocked down 2 free-throws to trim JM's lead to 57-55, and Cox and Ptacek entered the game after a long rest with their 4 fouls.  JM's Katie Boldt nailed a 3-pointer to stretch the lead back to 60-55, but then it was Ptacek's turn to put her stamp on the game.

Ptacek scored on a coast-to-coast layup off a turnover, weaving through Rockets along the way.  When she wasn't making layups, she was making free throws on aggressive moves to the basket.  Meanwhile, her teammates Farrier, Rachel Williamson, and Anna Edel, were busy knocking down free throws of their own (Owatonna was 19-for-22 from the line in the second half).

But the turning point came when coach Tricia Hoffman called a defensive timeout before a JM in-bounds from underneath their basket leading by 2 with just over a minute to go.  Hoffman knew JM would look to Ruden, who was becoming automatic down low.  She doubled up on the 6-foot sophomore, using Ptacek and Cox to deny any pass to her--meanwhile, Sydney Kasper blanketed a JM guard who received that in-bounds pass from beyond the arc.  The end result was a turnover, incredible off-balanced shot on a drive by Kat, and the start of a repeating sequence of JM turnover-JM foul-Owatonna made free throws that would eat up the game's final 50 seconds.

In all, Owatonna scored the last 10 points of the game and JM, shockingly, went from up 10 with 8 minutes left, to up 4 with 1:20 left, to not even getting a chance to make a shot to tie or win the game at the end.

Basically, Owatonna lifted the all the mounting pressure of the half from their shoulders and kindly handed it over to JM.  The loss had to be absolutley heart-breaking for the Rockets, who appeared destined down the stretch to make this another cliche game about how tough it is to sustain an undefeated conference season and beat a team 3 times.  Incredibly, Owatonna simply did not allow that to be the storyline.

And it that sense, it may well have been a blessing that the Huskies ended up with the No. 2 seed--while Lakeville North walked over a 2-win Hastings team and struggled to gain the lead over a sub-.500 Northfield team in the semifinals, the Huskies did it the hard way.

Which leads us to this Friday's tilt.  Yes, Lakeville North has won 4 straight over the Huskies and the combination of Lakeville / Lakeville North has ended Owatonna's season 5 times since 2003, but this year feels different. I expect the Huskies to play like they are the favorites when they take the Civic Center floor.

I'm not sure they aren't the favorites, to be honest.

Jason Iacovino can be heard on KRFO-AM 1390 on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3:50 p.m. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @JasonIacovino