DES MOINES — Long-armed Jess Schaben of Harlan stood in the way of her destiny.
Such was the clarity in Kayla Armstrong’s mind and the magic in her shooting touch that she barely even noticed her.
After Taylor Wagner’s driving basket had given No. 8 Harlan a 52-51 lead with 18 seconds left, Cedar Rapids Xavier’s Armstrong caught the ball on the left wing. The 5-foot-7 senior drove into the teeth of Harlan’s zone and twisted her body around the 6-1 Schaben for a basket with eight seconds left that gave the No. 5 Saints a 53-52 win in the Class 4-A state championship basketball game Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
“All I saw was the basket. I knew that she had blocked plenty of shots all game,” Armstrong said. “I saw a gap up the middle, and we couldn’t not get a shot off.”
Armstrong’s basket capped a remarkable week and story for her. Basketball is her second sport: She captained the 2-A all-tournament soccer team in the spring, led her school to its seventh straight state championship and earned a soccer scholarship to Drake. But she made 10 of 12 shots in Saturday’s basketball title game to finish with 23 points and six steals.
After averaging 6.9 points during the regular season, Armstrong also dazzled in the semifinals, totaling 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals in a win over No. 1 Sioux City Heelan. She was named captain of the all-tournament team in her second sport Saturday, after leading the Saints (17-9) to their fourth title in 11 years. It capped a year in which they had lost five of seven during one stretch while playing the toughest schedule in their class, according to computer power rankings.
Harlan (23-3) was seeking its first girls state basketball title in its second title-game appearance, following a runner-up effort in 1995. Coach Zach Klaassen said his team did everything it could to reach the doorstep. But a combination of missed free throws (6 of 14 in the second half) and Armstrong’s last-second heroics prevented it from finishing.
“It wasn’t bad defense, I’ll guarantee you that,” Klaassen said of Xavier’s last possession. “The defense was good. That’s a good player stepping up and making a tough shot in a clutch situation.”
Harlan called time out with 6.1 seconds left and set up a play to try to go the length of the floor. Wagner, a 5-9 sophomore who carried the Cyclones at times and scored a team-high 16 points, tried to rush the ball up against heavy pressure and lost control of it near midcourt. Xavier picked up the loose ball and ran out the final couple of seconds before exploding with excitement.
The game dripped with drama, featuring six ties and 14 lead changes. Six of those lead changes came in the final 3:47 of the game, as the teams traded big plays.
“If you’re a fan and you paid eight dollars to get in here, you got all of that,” Klaassen said.
Freshman Taylor Frederick’s two free throws put Harlan up 50-49 with 2:19 left. After the teams traded misses, Wagner was fouled with 49.1 seconds remaining. She missed both tries and then fouled trying to retrieve the second miss.
That sent Xavier’s Morgan Breitbach to the line, and the 43.9-percent foul shooter sank both to put the Saints up one. Harlan went inside to the 6-foot Frederick. She missed but grabbed her own rebound and was fouled. This time she missed both, and Schaben immediately fouled Ashley Stulken.
Stulken missed both with 27.3 seconds left, and Wagner converted a clutch drive with 18 seconds left to give the Cyclones the lead.
That set the stage for Armstrong, who converted her 21st basket in 26 shots (80.8 percent) at state. She drove on Schaben, who ranked third in Class 4-A in blocked shots and already had blocked four shots Saturday and altered many more.
“At the beginning of the season I definitely got in my own head,” Armstrong said. “Coach (Tom Lilly) and Sarah (Dickes) and my teammates had talked me through it, and I knew that it was now or never.”
In addition to her 16 points, Harlan’s Wagner had four assists and hit 2 of 3 from 3-point range. Schaben added 13 points and a whopping 19 rebounds, while young Frederick pitched in 10 points and nine rebounds.
Wagner and Schaben joined Armstrong on the all-tournament team, along with Xavier’s Stulken, Waverly-Shell Rock’s Aftin Phyfe and Sioux City Heelan’s Megan McCarthy.
At the end of the game, the Cyclones were playing two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior.
“This was definitely a great growing experience for kids,” Klaassen said. “It should help them bring a lot to the table next year.”
Harlan’s two seniors, Josie Esser and Liz Riessen, said even if it’s from a distance, they’ll be the team’s biggest fans next year.
“I wouldn’t trade this season for anything,” Esser said. “There were people telling us that we couldn’t hang with Xavier. Obviously we wanted to win, but we played our hardest and we did hang with them.”
Added Riessen: “If somebody would have told me at the beginning of the season that we would be state runner-ups, I probably would have laughed at them. I’m so proud of our girls.”
Harlan (23-3) ................. 8 20 13 11—52
Cedar Rapids Xavier (17-9) ................. 16 11 17 9—53
H: Liz Riessen 0-3 0-0 0, Hannah Havick 0-1 0-0 0, Taylor Wagner 6-11 2-5 16, Elle Kloewer 2-3 0-0 4, Josie Esser 2-4 0-0 4, Jess Schaben 5-12 3-5 13, Taylor Leinen 0-3 0-0 0, Jordyn Moser 1-7 3-4 5, Taylor Frederick 4-8 2-5 10. Totals: 20-52 10-19 52.
X: Kayla Armstrong 10-12 3-6 23, Hayley Deutmeyer 2-7 1-2 6, Sarah Dickes 0-7 0-0 0, Maddie Bertsch 1-5 1-2 3, Ashley Stulken 6-15 1-5 13, Morgan Breitbach 1-1 2-2 4, Jenny Dickes 0-1 0-0 0, Abby Watson 0-1 0-0 0, McKenna Andersen 2-5 0-0 4. Totals: 22-54 8-17 53.
3-point goals: H 2-9 (Wagner 2-3, Havick 0-1, Leinen 0-2, Riessen 0-3), X 1-12 (Deutmeyer 1-4, Andersen 0-3, Dickes 0-5). Total fouls: H 14, X 19. Fouled out: none. Technical fouls: none. Rebounds: H 45 (Schaben 19), X 29 (Stulken 9). Assists: H 12 (Wagner 4, Moser 4), X 11 (Dickes 4). Steals: H 4 (Wagner 2), X 13 (Armstrong 6). Turnovers: H 18, X 8.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1055, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/KWhiteOWH