As a senior captain and point guard for defending Class 3A champion Cooper, Aja Wheeler knows she has to provide leadership.
She also knows her duties extend beyond that. Her experience means she's the person the Hawks want with the ball in her hands when the game — or the season — is on the line.
"It's my responsibility to take charge and be able to finish the game off," Wheeler said.
With Cooper trailing by a point Thursday in the Section 6 championship and the clock winding down, Wheeler drove around her defender and banked in a running layup with 11 seconds left to lift the Hawks to a 52-51 victory over Waconia and send them back to the state tournament.
The No. 7-ranked Hawks (20-8) struggled to make perimeter shots for much of the game after jumping out to a 13-4 lead. Waconia took its first lead at 22-20 on Sydni Olson's basket with 2:32 left in the first half and led by as many as six points late in the second half.
Wheeler responded with three consecutive baskets that sparked an 8-0 run and put the Hawks in front 47-45 with 5:12 to go.
Wheeler finished with 20 points. Teammate Andrea Tribble scored a game-high 21, with the final three putting the Hawks in front 50-49. Audrey Swanson's steal and layup with 1:22 left put Waconia (21-8) back in front until Wheeler's game-winner.
"We have lots of talent, but not as much experience this year," Cooper coach Kiara Buford said. "Getting through our tough nonconference schedule and close games like this should have us ready for the tournament."