(Story written by Jon Weisbrod, who covered the game for Kat Kountry 105 FM.)

AUSTIN — In order for the Owatonna girls basketball team to pull off an upset on the scale of toppling an opponent the caliber of No. 5-ranked Austin, several factors needed to fall into place.

Well, it all happened on Saturday night.

Catching the Packers at perhaps just the right time and sustaining momentum from a three-game winning streak they carried into the game, the Huskies tapped into a new threshold of high-level execution and stole a 54-46 Big Nine Conference victory on the road.

The fact that Austin entered the night having dropped two of its last three games and had recently been unceremoniously overthrown from its perch atop the conference standings certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that anything other than pure effort and execution ultimately decided the outcome.

With Audrey Simon lighting the fuse by scoring six of her team-high 16 points to open the game and Holly Buytaert punctuating Owatonna’s explosive opening half by drilling four 3-pointers in an unconscious 7-minute stretch, Owatonna led 29-16 at halftime and quickly built its biggest advantage of the game at 17 points by scoring on back-to-back possessions to start the second half. As it turns out, the mini 4-0 run would prove to be crucial for OHS over the next 16 minutes.

Its recent setbacks aside, the Packers hadn’t played nearly two months of unbeaten basketball and risen to as high as No. 1 in the Class AAA rankings by crumbling in the face of adversity and predictably punched back to set the stage for the dramatic finish.

Austin took the comeback one step at a time, first cutting the deficit to a manageable nine points with a 10-2 scoring burst before reaching the next benchmark when it drew within a single-possession with 9 minutes, 1 second on the clock.

And then, a breakthrough.

Feeding off the palpable rising energy inside the Ove Berven Gymnasium, the Packers took their first lead since early in the first half when Olivia Walsh made 1 of 2 free throws at the 7:53-mark. Austin came all the way back from its largest deficit of the season by riding its talented starting lineup and relied upon only the occasional pause in the action during rare timeouts to allow the group to catch their breath. The fivesome accounted for 100% of the Packers’ minutes in the second half.

Owatonna, meanwhile, utilized a resourceful rotation of 10 players and wasn’t afraid to dig deep into its bench in critical situations, even as the Packers inched closer on the scoreboard. So, when it came time to make one final push in the game’s decisive stretch run, it was the Huskies who attacked with fresher legs.

With Buytaert having been neutralized thanks to a few tweaks in the Austin defensive game plan coming out of the break, it was up to a number of teammates — chiefly Simon and Lexi Mendenhall — to keep the Huskies afloat. Simon drew Owatonna even at 41-41 with a bucket with around 6:20 on the clock before Austin quickly regained a one-point edge with a free throw on its ensuing offensive possession.

The Huskies, though, remained composed and crisply rotated the ball through their usual offensive sets and didn’t panic on the other end, eventually flicking a pass into Mendenhall’s hands on the right wing.

The senior didn’t flinch.

Squaring up and setting her feet in a single fluid motion like she had done hundreds of times over the previous three years as a key two-way player for the Huskies, Mendenhall released a shot and watched as it rotated tightly through the air before snapping directly through the net at the 5:36-mark. Owatonna would not fall behind for the rest of the game and further distanced themselves on its next offensive possession when Simon converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to make it 47-42.

Ari Shornock, who finished with four points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals, converted back-to-back free throws to counter an Austin bucket that made it 47-44 and recorded half of the four unanswered points Owatonna scored in the game’s final 90 seconds.

Befitting of a showdown that immediately rocketed into high gear with a 9-minute stretch of non-stop action to open the game, the closing moments diverted from the usual choppy flow that often besets contests that hover within a few possessions down the stretch. Instead, replacing the incessant fouls, intermittent free throws and relentless pauses was a closing minute on Saturday night that simply ran out of time in a largely uninterrupted stream of action, the Huskies cementing the final score at 54-46 by converting a shot with 45 seconds on the clock. Austin’s final offensive gasp ended with a whimper and the Packers committed their 17th turnover on the other end to seal their fate.

Less than 30 seconds later, the final horn rang out and Owatonna’s bench was free to spill onto the hardwood and celebrate with their teammates directly below a sizeable cluster of OHS fans that made the 40-minute drive to witness what instantly became one of the program’s marquee win under head coach Lindsey Hugstad-Vaa.

Mendenhall stuffed the box score with 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. Simon led the Huskies with eight rebounds and drilled her only 3-point attempt of the night.

Owatonna (8-11 overall, 7-8 Big Nine) looks to extend its winning streak to five games on Tuesday night when it hosts Northfield (2-7, 2-14) at 7:30 p.m.

The loss drops the Packers (15-4, 13-3) to 1-3 in their last four outings and two games behind conference-leading Mankato East (15-3, 14-1) with six league games remaining for both teams. The two teams split the season series.


OWATONNA INDIVIDUAL SCORING: Audrey Simon 16 (8 rebounds), Lexi Mendenhall 13 (7 rebounds, 3 assists), Holly Buytaert 12 (2 assists), Hillary Haarstad 6, Ari Shornock 4, Avery Ahrens 3.

OWATONNA TEAM STATS: 20-for-49 FG (40.8%); 7-for-12 3 PT FG (58.3%); 7-for-10 FT (70%); 32 REB (12 OFF, 20 DEF); 12 ASSISTS; 14 TURNOVERS; 8 STEALS

HALFTIME: Owatonna 29, Austin 16

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