Armed with a trio of players just an inch or so shy of 6-feet, and a fourth that, though "only" 5-foot-8, plays with a strength that makes her seem at least a few inches taller, and more often than not the Maple Grove Lady Red Dragons have the height advantage somewhere out on the court.
It's just a matter of finding which of those four, on a given night, is best suited to exploit the edge.
"We have a tall team," coach Mary Bartkowski said, "and we have to look low (first). It could be Lauren (Nickerson), who's not a tall girl but she plays strong, but it might not always be Lauren. So we have (other options) and can go to Emily (Swanson), Emma (Franczak) or Amie (Adams) because they are all so tall.
Lauren Nickerson of Maple Grove fires a jump shot over Franklinville’s Jen Blum during Friday night’s Division 3 game. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J photo by Rob Tucker
"We just have to find the mismatch."
But while it is normally one of the four that can find success in the paint during a game, this time around against visiting Franklinville it was a nearly all of them - especially in the second half.
After an even battle over the opening 16 minutes- Maple Grove went into the locker room with a slim, two-point lead, 21-19 - the Lady Red Dragons refocused on getting the ball to their bigs in the third and fourth frames to spark a 16-6 third-quarter run and capture the Division 3 victory, 50-37.
The win evened Maple Grove's overall record to 4-4 and improved the all-important league mark to 2-1. Franklinville, meanwhile, which was vastly improved from its last appearance in Maple Grove a year ago when it suffered a 52-14 defeat, fell to 3-5 and 0-3 in league.
Lauren Nickerson, who finished with a game-high 19 points, tallied 11 in the second half to go along with nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks; Emma Franczak came off the bench and hauled in nine rebounds while netting seven points; and Emily Swanson, who was held scoreless in the first two quarters, came back with six over the final two and grabbed six rebounds to highlight the second-half surge.
"Emily really came through in the second half," Bartkowski said, "Emma came off the bench and did a great job and Lauren worked for her points and had a solid game. In the second half the girls finally came together."
Not only were the Lady Red Dragons finding space to feed the ball down low for easy baskets -20 of their 28 second-half points were scored in the paint - but they were also finding success at the defensive end thanks to a renewed aggression in its man-to-man defense.
After allowing Franklinville's Vanessa Pfeiffer, who finished with 13 points, to hit a pair of triples and score nine points in the first half, Maple Grove zeroed in it's focus on her with a stifling man-to-man that ground the Lady Panthers' offense to a halt.
Over the final 16 minutes of play, Franklinville made just five field goals, and only one in the critical third quarter.
"We went into a man-to-man," Bartkowski explained, "and got a little bit more intense and a little more aggressive. And we really started to focus on Pfeiffer because it seemed like in the first half she really moved the offense."
Pfeiffer, who was harassed whenever she received a pass, was held without a field goal in the second half and scored a just more four more points (all from the free throw line).
"I believe that maybe by taking Pfeiffer out of it a little bit we forced the other girls to play," Bartkowski continued. "And when that happens it disrupts what they had been doing. So (some our second half success) I think was due to the fact that we shut her down."
Nickerson (seven points), Swanson (four) and Franczak (three) combined for 14 of 16 points in the third quarter to cushion the Maple Grove advantage to a more comfortable 12 points, 37-25. That lead soon ballooned to 17 points, 47-30, midway through the fourth quarter behind two more baskets by Maple Grove post players that seal the victory.
O'Neal 5 2 12, Pfeiffer 3 5 13, Leederman 2 0 4, Blum 1 1 3, Pollock 1 0 2, Haskell 1 0 3. Totals 13 8 37.
MAPLE GROVE (50)
Liddell 3 0 6, M. Swanson 2 1 5, Nickerson 8 3 19, Ahlstrom 2 0 4, Winchester 1 0 2, Franczak 3 1 7, E. Swanson 3 0 6, Adams 0 1 1. Totals 22 6 50.
3-point goals: Pfeiffer 2, Haskell.
Franklinville9 10 6 12 - 37
Maple Grove11 10 16 13 - 50
Jayvees: Maple Grove 29, Franklinville 27.