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Darlington hangs on for win
Darlington junior Kennedy Rankin shoots during the Redbirds 52-48 victory over Mineral Point on Thursday in WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal at Monroe High School. Rankin scored a team-high 11 points. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - No one would blame Darlington junior Kennedy Rankin for standing in a sea of red with the band blasting and soaking up the moment after the Redbirds stunned defending state champion Mineral Point 52-48 in a WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal on Thursday.

Rankin scored a team-high 11 points and grabbed five rebounds to lead the Redbirds to a nail-biting victory, which was the Redbirds' first sectional semifinal win in the program's history. Now, Darlington (18-7) is on the brink of making it to the school's first state tournament.

"It gives me goose bumps," Rankin said. "It's the best feeling ever."

Darlington advances to play La Crosse Aquinas (25-0) in a sectional championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Baraboo High School.

Before Darlington could extend its history-making season, the Redbirds had to survive a thrilling final 54.6 seconds while clinging to a two-point lead. Darlington senior Sadie Fitzsimons, who added nine points, made 1 of 2 free throws with 29.3 seconds to go to give the Redbirds a 51-48 lead. The Redbirds shot 23 percent from the free-throw line (3 of 13) and just 2 of 7 in the final 54 seconds.

However, Mineral Point was doomed by turnovers with 28 in the game including a back-breaking three turnovers and two defensive fouls in the final 1:37.

Mineral Point sophomore Mara Aschliman, junior Syd Staver and senior Cassie Bossert each missed 3-pointers in the final 29 seconds as the Redbirds' defense came up with the stops they needed.

"We made it even more difficult on ourselves than we needed to with our free throws," Darlington coach Kelly Rose said. "We wanted to challenge their shots and be sitting and ready on defense if they drove."

Forcing turnovers out of its 2-3 zone is nothing new for the Redbirds.

"That's the kind of team we have been all year," Rose said. "We play that zone, and we look to get tips and steals and score on the fastbreak."

It was a winning recipe for the Redbirds early on. Darlington opened the game with a 12-4 run. The Pointers answered with an 11-0 run fueled by Aschliman's two 3-pointers to gain a 15-12 lead. Staver scored 15 of her game-high 18 points in the first half. Despite being plagued by 15 first-half turnovers, the Pointers led 24-21 at the break.

The Pointers started the second half with a 6-2 spurt. Mineral Point senior Destinee Kruser scored down low to give the Pointers their largest lead at seven points, 30-23 lead with 13:54 left. Rose took a timeout, and the Redbirds responded with a 17-5 game-changing run to build a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

"We just revisited our game plan," Rose said of the timeout. "We talked about taking better care of the basketball, being patient and getting the ball inside and pushing the ball when we could."

Darlington sophomore Bethany McDonald scored on a layup off a bounce pass from Taryn Rankin to tie the game at 35 with 9:40 left. Senior Callie Norton scored on a putback and sophomore Kaylee Meyers hit a 3-pointer to help the Redbirds take a 40-35 lead.

Moments later, Staver and Aschliman both drilled 3-pointers to cut the Redbirds' lead to 42-41. That set the stages for a heart-pounding finish.

"We knew they could really shoot the 3-pointers and were really accurate," said Meyers said, who finished with nine points. "We had to get out on them, make them uncomfortable and make them chuck them."

Darlington senior Taryn Rankin chipped in six points, grabbed six rebounds, had three blocked shots and three steals. Sophomore Kathleen Mathias and Norton each added six points.

"At the beginning of the season we just wanted to be competitive," Meyers said. "As the season has progressed we have become more of a team. Coming in, we knew with one more win we would have a chance to play for a chance to go to state for the first time in the history of our school."