The Mountain Iron-Buhl girls basketball team's full-court pressure is so difficult to prepare for that Cromwell coach Jeff Gronner went to extreme measures in preparation for the Rangers this week.
Gronner enlisted athletic director Dave Foster, Cromwell boys basketball coach Bill Pocernich and three members of the Cardinals boys team to simulate it.
That still didn't work.
Freshman guard Chelsea Mason scored 14 of her game-high 20 points in the second half as Mountain Iron-Buhl pulled away for a 61-41 victory over Cromwell in the Section 7A semifinals on Wednesday night at Romano Gym.
"Offensively we've been struggling a little bit lately, but we always stress the one constant should be defense," Rangers coach Jeff Buffetta said. "Putting the ball in the basket isn't always a given, but the one thing you can control is your defensive effort. That helped us create some easy baskets."
Third-ranked MIB advances to Friday's 7A final, where it will renew its budding rivalry with sixth-ranked North Woods, a 74-54 winner over McGregor in Wednesday's other semifinal at Romano. The Rangers will try to earn their fourth straight state tournament berth and sixth overall.
"It never gets old," Buffetta said.
MIB routed Cromwell 80-34 just two weeks ago in Mountain Iron, so Cromwell's added preparation against the press certainly helped at times, but holding off the Rangers for an entire game is another matter. Their press is relentless, like swarming hornets.
"They are one of the state's top-ranked teams for a reason," Gronner said. "They can all shoot, and that press tired us."
That can go both ways. When asked if running the press gets tiring, the Rangers' Mason quickly responded, "Yes!"
Fortunately, the Rangers are used to it.
Lissy McCulloch had 13 of her 15 points in the first half to stake MIB (27-2) to a 36-24 halftime lead.
Chelsea Swatek had 13 points to lead Cromwell (16-10), while Allie Cahoon, the team's lone senior, added 12.
"I was pleased with our improvement and effort, but we just ran into a better team," Gronner said. "Their program is to a level we want to be."
Cromwell -- Teana Hakamaki 2, Bailey Gronner 8, Kelly Susa 2, Rachel Hutar 1, Chelsea Swatek 13, Olivia Cahoon 3, Allie Cahoon 12. Totals 15 6-10 41.
3-point goals -- Gronner 2, Swatek 3.
Mountain Iron-Buhl -- Allie Knuti 10, Chelsea Mason 20, Kianna Martinson 8, Sarah Overbye 3, Mya Buffetta 5, Lissy McCulloch 15. Totals 24 7-12 61.
3-point goals -- Mason 2, Martinson 2, Overbye, McCulloch.
NORTH WOODS 74, MCGREGOR 54
A matchup featuring two of the Northland's all-time leading girls basketball scorers was dealt a cruel blow just over five minutes into the contest when McGregor senior point guard Abby Hawkinson crashed to the court while going for a rebound.
With blood on the floor and a cut to her forehead, Hawkinson, by high school league rule, could not play the rest of the game after a trainer examined her and ruled she had "concussion-like symptoms," according to Mercuries coach Kris Rinta.
"It's just unfortunate," Rinta said. "I give the rest of the girls credit for hanging in there, but when you lose your starting point guard of the last six years, it's tough, especially for her. Five minutes later, Abby felt fine, but they looked at her right away, with blood still on the court next to her. She didn't even get a few seconds to regroup, but that's the way it goes. I don't blame anybody."
McGregor led 37-34 at the break but struggled with turnovers while getting outscored 40-17 in the second half.
Darby Youngstrom, the game's other 2,000-plus point scorer, had 20 points to lead North Woods (25-2), while Alicia Rutchasky added 17 points, including nine in the second half. Teammate Destinie Villebrun chipped in with 13 points, while Zoe Bystrom had all 10 of her points in the second half.
Kendra Mickelson had 13 points to lead McGregor (23-5), while Hawkinson had five points in what could be her final game. Rinta said Hawkinson is looking at attending Minnesota Duluth and not playing basketball.
"We didn't like what we got out of our press in the first half, so we went with our half-court man defense that worked a lot better," North Woods coach Ashlee Zupancich said.
That effort sets up a rematch with Mountain Iron-Buhl. MIB beat North Woods 57-49 on Jan. 16 in Mountain Iron.
Last year North Woods beat MIB 52-50 during the regular season, only to fall 48-44 in the section title game.
"It will be an up-tempo game. It'll be interesting," Zupancich said. "They like to run that press after a made basket, and we hope to give them a lot of contested shots. Our rivalry has grown immensely in the past couple years, so we're looking forward to Friday. It's a back-and-forth battle. Hopefully we come out Friday and start the way that we finished here."
North Woods......... 34-40--74
North Woods -- Tessa Mankus 9, Zoe Bystrom 10, Jessica Harmston 2, Brystin Vitense 2, Darby Youngstrom 20, Destinie Villebrun 13, Alicia Rutchasky 17. Totals 27 14-18 74.
3-point goals -- Mankus, Rutchasky 5.
McGregor -- Stacia Staska 4, Korinna Mickelson 9, Kendra Mickelson 13, Amy Gelhar 15, Abby Hawkinson 5, Danelle Demenge 8. Totals 21 6-15 54.
3-point goals -- Korinna Mickelson, Kendra Mickelson, Gelhar 2, Hawkinson, Demenge.