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2nd half burst propels Panthers
Juda junior Hannah Powers grabs a rebound from Monticello freshman Macki Errthum and junior Hannah Zanow during their game Feb. 12. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONTICELLO - With just a week to go before the start of the WIAA playoffs, the Juda Panthers know there is still work that needs to be done.

"They did a good job against our press and it slowed the game down," Juda head coach Curtis Brown said after his team beat Monticello 51-38 Monday. "It comes down to execution - sometimes we executed and other times we didn't."

Both teams struggled on offense early, and the Panthers led 20-12 at the half.

"We got the pace going in the second half. Twenty-to-12 is not a very good pace for us," Brown said. "We got a few more scores in the post and got some turnovers in the second half."

In the second, it was the Ponies who started to find their groove early.

Over the course of the first 6-plus minutes of the frame, Monticello was able to steadily creep back into the game and trailed 28-24 with 11 minutes left in regulation.

"We were close - we did better than we did earlier in the year," Monticello coach Mark Gustafson said. "But eventually moral victories should be a thing of the past. The girls played well in spurts, but it would be nice to put a full game together."

Juda tried to run away at that point, with MacKenzie Byrne burying a 3-pointer and Hailey Kammerer knocking down a baseline jumper to stretch the lead back to 9. But the Ponies didn't quit.

Monticello again brought the deficit down to four points at 33-29 with 8:44 to play.

"They really do everything they can to maximize what they have," Brown said of Monticello. "They've been getting a lot closer in conference games lately and I knew it was going to be tough."

Then the Panthers found their stride, much of it thanks to Erika Duecker's rebounding in the post.

Duecker saved four Panther possessions by getting a key rebound during a four-minute stretch, and those extended possessions helped Juda to go on a 14-4 run to widen the gap to 47-33 with 2:57 remaining.

"There were some offensive rebounds we gave up and some horrible turnovers, and before we knew it, it was a 12-point game and we were playing catch-up," Gustafson said.

Byrne led Juda in scoring with 11, which included 9 in the second half. Maddie Roth, Karlee Kesler and Duecker each had 9 while Hailey Kammerer finished with 8 for the Panthers. Juda outshot Monticello at the free throw line, too, hitting 14 of 19 freebies to Monticello's 2 of 8.

"That's usually what we have - we don't really have anyone averaging too many, but we have a lot of girls averaging in that 6-10 range," Brown said. "When the season started we were shooting about 40 percent from the free throw line. We have improved."

Alyssen Noriega led Monticello with 11 points. Eight Ponies scored in all, including the team's lone senior, Calissa Briggs, who had four.

"(Calissa) learned from the Alyssah Kubly's and the Courtney Leuzinger's - the team that made it to sectionals (in 2015)," Gustafson said. "She took two years off because of injuries and whatnot, but the girls looked to her for her leadership. She's just a nice kid, too. She has all the qualities you'd want."

Next on the agenda for both teams are the final conference games of the season before next week's WIAA regional quarterfinals. Juda will travel to Albany, where the winner will get a date with the WIAA's top-ranked team, undefeated Black Hawk. That is, however, pending a game against Madison Country Day (1-19).

"We play Albany Thursday (regular season) and again Tuesday (postseason). To play anyone twice in five days is going to be tough," Brown said. "We see them all the time - we know everything they are going to do, and they know everything we are going to do. It'll come down to execution."

Monticello, meanwhile, opens the postseason at fifth-seeded Randolph. And for a team that is in its first year of varsity basketball since 2015, going from where the Ponies were on Day 1 of camp until now is night and day.

"We've improved a ton. From Day 1 this year where our first half at Brodhead looked absolutely like, 'Oh my Lord, this is going to be a long year,' to competing with Albany, competing with Argyle, competing tonight. They've made big strides," Gustafson said. "I don't want to say that I'm looking forward to next year, but I'm looking forward to next year just because of what we are going to have back. There's still a long way to go, but they've come a long way already."