Washington Evening Journal
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Guess who’s back!
Winfield-Mount Union girls basketball finally returns to the state tournament
IOWA CITY — It took 25 years of waiting, but the Winfield-Mount Union girls basketball team can finally say it again. The Wolves are going to the state tournament.
No. 8 WMU ousted No. 13 North Mahaska in Thursday night’s Class 1A Region 8 final, and the senior-led Wolves could finally celebrate with the state qualifier banner.
“It was just so surreal,” said one of those seniors, Keely Malone. “I knew we could do it.”
The Wolves had to scrap all night with a tough Warhawk team that had WMU down at halftime, but in the end, the Wolves finally finished on top of the bracket after close calls in the last two years.
“We knew we could do it, and we knew everyone believed in us,” said Keetyn Townsley. “It feels great to be able to actually accomplish it and get it done.”
The Wolves got things going early. WMU was red-hot at the beginning of the first quarter, jumping out to an 11-3 lead after Malone sank corner 3-pointer that had the Wolves’ fans on their feet.
Melina Oepping had the hot hand early on, as she continued her incredible postseason run by scoring eight quick points. The problem? She also had three fouls in the first eight minutes, and the Warhawks would take advantage.
North Mahaska had the Wolves’ lead down to 15-13 at the end of the first quarter. The Warhawks would go on to lead by as much as seven, at 22-15, when they capped off a 19-4 run late in the second quarter.
The Wolves would cut that advantage to 22-17 on a bucket by Bradie Buffington. Malone’s half-court shot at the buzzer rimmed out, and WMU was still down five points at the halftime break.
When the third quarter began, the Wolves were back at full strength with Oepping back onto the court, and the entire complexity of the game was about to change. The senior forward scored 10 points in the third quarter and the Wolves roared back to lead 39-37 after three periods.
“We needed her,” said WMU head coach Mendy McCreight. “She's a big, important part of our team.”
It certainly wasn’t over yet, as North Mahaska again rallied to take a lead, and the teams would trade punches all fourth quarter long.
Down 40-39 with four minutes left, Buffington put in a contested layup to give the Wolves the lead again. Malone followed with a floater at the shot clock buzzer, and the Wolves had a 43-40 advantage.
North Mahaska cut it back to 43-42 with 1:37 left, but Oepping got to the line, got fouled and sank two huge free throws. Malone split at the line on the next time down. Then, right after the loss of point guard Keetyn Townsley, who fouled out with just one minute to go, Malone came up big with a steal and a fast break layup to put the Wolves up 48-42.
“It was just a build up of emotions,” Oepping said. “We were just so ready to let loose.”
WMU continued to hit its free throws down the stretch, finishing the night 15-for-20 from the line. As North Mahaska tried its best to pull out a miracle, the final buzzer finally sounded, and it was celebration time for the first time since 1998.
“I just ran out into the court and gave my teammates a hug,” said Townsley. “I don't even know what was happening.”
As the celebration continued, the state qualifier banner was brought out. Anna Anderson was the first to touch the banner, and the party was on the Iowa City West gym floor.
“It was amazing,” Anderson said. “I'm so excited to play at the Well. It's always been a lifelong dream.”
The win ended not only the 25-year drought for the school, but three years of frustration for a senior class that saw the team get knocked out by Notre Dame in each of the past three years, including twice in the regional semifinals. This year’s WMU squad not only got past their Nike demons in the semis, but finished off the job just six days later.
“Looking back at our past years, how our coaches built us up until now. They all got us to where we are today,” said Buffington. “We're super grateful that God was able to give us this opportunity.”
Coach McCreight, who took over this year for longtime Wolves leader Mitch Wachs, said it was a moment her team had built on since Day 1.
“We filled out evaluation sheets at the beginning of the season, just to see some of their goals,” McCreight said. “Those seniors said, 'make it to state.'”
Oepping finished the night with 24 points and eight rebounds. She shot 7-for-11 from the field. Townsley had 11 points, including two mad 3-pointers. Malone scored eight points, and also led the team with four assists and three steals.
Buffington finished the night with seven points and six rebounds. Sophomore Josie Nelson had two points on a pair of go-ahead free throws in the second half. Anderson dished out a pair of assists.
Only seven Wolves saw the court on the historic night. Junior Mariana Hagmeier played big minutes in the second quarter with Oepping still on the bench.
North Mahaska star Breckyn Schilling scored 16 points to lead the Warhawks. Fellow sophomore Sydney Anderson had 10.
WMU earned the No. 6 seed at the state tournament. They will take on North Linn on Wednesday, March 1, at 6:45 p.m. It will be the first WMU state basketball game played since the venue was moved to Wells Fargo Arena.
“I don't think any words can describe it,” McCreight said. “It's emotional. It's rewarding. It's amazing, and I am so happy for them. I couldn't be prouder.”