Two consecutive girls' basketball state championship game appearances taught Winona coach Tim Gleason that success follows the more comfortable team.
He could not have known just how relaxed Orono felt. A pregame locker room dance party helped ease the Spartans, and they handled their first championship game with veteran poise. Top-seeded Orono never trailed and defeated the Winhawks 65-47 in the Class 3A title game at Williams Arena.
The Spartans (26-5) made program history while the No. 3 seeded Winhawks (26-5) fell in the championship game for the second consecutive season.
Seniors Tori Andrew and Mattea Rice combined for 41 points and inspired their fellow starters, who played the entire game without substitutions.
Andrew was the lone returning starter from an Orono team that did not fulfill championship expectations last season. In fact, the Spartans didn't even reach the tourney. Players resolved to make this season count even if observers counted them out.
"The difference this year was that we didn't think we were going to get far," Andrew said. "So we just played like we didn't have anything to lose, and we didn't lose."
No respect? Not even as the tournament's No. 1 seed?
"Even though we're the No. 1 seed, people still had doubts," Andrew said. "People still don't believe in us. All we need for us is to believe in ourselves."
Gleason's game plan, to win inside, never materialized. Orono outscored the Winhawks 28-18 in the paint and 13-5 on second-chance points. Too often his team either struggled to make stops on defense or failed to rebound a missed shot.
While Andrew, a Star Tribune all-metro first-team selection, scored near her regular-season average with 22 points, Rice added 19 points — 17 more than her regular-season average.
"It upset me during the season when everybody said, 'Orono is just Tori Andrew,' " first-year Spartans coach Lavesa Glover said. "That's not true."
Count Winona among the converted.
"We really underestimated the other players they had," Winhawks senior guard Eden Nibbelink said. "Their group of five is really strong."
Down by as many as 22 points during the second half, Winona fought back and cut its deficit to 10 with about five minutes left. A veteran Winhawks team, featuring nine seniors who shared a court each winter since the fifth grade, saw hope.
But no baskets in the final 5:48 relegated Winona to second place once again.
"To make it to the championship and just never be able to pull it off is a little bit tough," senior guard Maria Appicelli said.