DES MOINES - Tied 43-43 and with less than five minutes remaining, Exira/EHK held AGSWR to 2 for 7 shooting down the stretch, forced two big turnovers and scored 14 of the final 18 points in a 57-47 first-round victory on Wednesday at the Class 1A girls state tournament.
Exira/EHK's two top players, Sophia Peppers and Kealey Nelson, put together another dominant showing in Des Moines, combining for 42 points, 17 rebounds and eight steals in their third win at the Wells Fargo arena since the Spartans began a run of four straight trips to state in 2015.
They had 28 of their team's 31 second half points while closing out the win with makes at the free throw line, forcing two big takeaways and scoring 13 of the 14 in the decisive run that put the game away.
Yet, while those two came to play on the big stage once again, it was the defensive effort of the Spartans as a group that proved to be the difference.
"We didn't play our best, they didn't either, but our defense played outstanding," coach Tom Petersen said. "We talked about it and we went through their offenses all the time. When you've got that much time to prepare you better know what they're doing, and we did."
Regional Finals were held 10 days before Class 1A opened its portion of the state tournament giving Petersen and his team enough afternoons in the gym to become accustomed with one of the most deadly 3-point shooting teams in the state.
Senior Mandy Willems and freshman Aubrie Fisher sank a total of 127 3s on the season and led a group that collectively hit 42 percent from beyond the arc - the third-best mark of any girls team in any class of Iowa high school basketball.
But distance shooting wasn't the only element Exira/EHK had to prepare for. Though no player on the AGWSR roster averages more than eight rebounds per game, the Cougars as a group finished the season with the fourth-best rebounding average of any team in 1A.
On Wednesday, the Spartans held them to 4 for 21 on 3-pointers and won the battle on the glass 35-27. Exira/EHK grabbed 12 offensive boards to 10 for the opponents and scored 14 second-chance points compared to nine.
It added up to an effort that matched the lowest Cougar offensive total of the season.
"We knew exactly what (Willems) wanted to do," Peppers said, "and we were prepared."
In Wednesday's issue of the News-Telegraph, a headline about Willems compared her tendency to shoot the 3 from all parts of the court to the likes of NBA All-Star Stephen Curry.
Petersen used that, and other material for motivation.
On AGWSR's website, the school laid out the schedule should the Cougars win. There was also a schedule should they lose, but Petersen might have kept that part to himself.
"There's always bulletin board Mr. Petersen can twist a little bit," he joked in postgame interviews. "Ellie (Schultes) took (the comparison to Steph Curry) to heart."
She and her teammates held Willems to a 4 of 20 shooting performance and 2 of 11 from outside. Fisher hit 3 of 7 and 1 of 5 from deep.
It was just the second time this year AGWSR only had one player reach double figures.
"Communication plays a big part," Nelson said. "We've had a lot of practice with other teams. I think that's what helped in this game."
AGWSR led 13-12 after the first quarter and 27-26 at halftime but hadn't found much of a rhythm due to a constantly changing lineup.
Three players already had two fouls thanks in large part to Peppers establishing position in the lane.
Despite that, Exira/EHK gave the ball away enough that, even with a disjointed offense, the Cougars led through most of the first half.
That began to change when Petersen utilized the press midway through the third.
Behind that defensive switch, the Spartans went on an 8-0 run and took a 36-31 lead. But two turnovers and two missed shots later, Willems tied it on her second 3.
Nelson's putback in the final minute gave Exira/EHK a 40-38 lead entering the fourth quarter.
AGWSR scored the first three points from the foul line and had the game tied until Peppers grabbed her own miss and banked it back in during a foul call for a three-point play.
Nelson swiped away a steal from Willems on the next possession and took it the other direction for a five-point advantage.
A missed layup, missed 3 and another Nelson steal plus Exira/EHK in its clock wasting four corners offense did the rest.
Peppers, Nelson and Tatum Grubbs finished it by going 10 of 13 together at the line in the final four minutes.
Peppers finished with 24, nine rebounds, five steals and four assists. Nelson scored 18 to go with eight boards and three steals.
Exira/EHK moves on to play No. 1 and reigning back-to-back champion Springville on Friday at 1:30.
The Orioles ended the Spartans season in the same round at the state tournament in 2015.
"This group of girls is super close. We've bonded a lot this season," Peppers said. "We started off rocky this season, but getting her a fourth time with the young girls finally understanding how important it is, they're going hard and understand how important it is."