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DIVISION I-A GIRLS: Faith Lutheran pounds boards hard to claim school’s first championship

It could have been disastrous.

Faith Lutheran’s three perimeter starters combined to go 1-for-21 from the field, and leading scorer Julia Benko didn’t make a field goal Saturday.

But senior post players Sam Leonard and Taylor Hammer made sure it didn’t matter.

Leonard and Hammer combined for 39 points, 33 rebounds and seven blocked shots to lead the Crusaders to a 49-40 win over Spring Creek in the Division I-A girls state basketball title game at Orleans Arena.

It was the first girls state basketball title in school history.

“I’ve been saying all year that we are a full team and we never know who’s going to step up,” Faith Lutheran coach Jennifer Karner said. “Tonight, the posts took control. They banged inside, they hit big shots when they needed to and they cleaned up the boards, which is girls basketball.”

Leonard scored five of Faith Lutheran’s seven points in the third quarter to help keep the Crusaders (21-8) in the game. They trailed 31-28 going into the fourth quarter, but Hammer scored nine of her game-high 20 points in the final period to secure the win.

Hammer’s 15-foot jumper with 4:04 to play gave the Crusaders a 40-38 lead, and they wouldn’t trail again.

Leonard had 21 rebounds for Faith Lutheran, which grabbed 52 rebounds as a team.

“I kept telling my team, ‘It’s rebounds tonight,’ ” Leonard said. “Personally, I tell myself if I’m not making my shots that I need to focus on my rebounds, because that’s where I’ll get my points.”

Karner said the team focuses on defense, and knows it must grab rebounds when it forces missed shots. The Crusaders held Spring Creek (23-4) to 20.8 percent shooting (15-for-72).

“We know we’re going to make you miss shots,” Karner said. “So we’ve had all season practicing on cleaning up the rebounds. So we know when we stop shots that what we’ve got to do is get those rebounds.”

Faith Lutheran was able to seal the game from the free-throw line, as the team’s starters went 12-for-15 from the line in the fourth quarter.

“It’s been a struggle all year long, our free throws,” Karner said. “But when they want something and they put their mind to it, it’s clear that they can accomplish it. And they stepped up to the line and they hit those shots that they needed. That was the difference tonight.”

Leonard said the state title was exactly the way she and the team’s other five seniors wanted to go out.

“It’s crazy; it’s nice being a senior,” Leonard said. “I’ve been playing with these girls, some of them, since elementary school and others since middle school, and it just feels so good to play for my team.”

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