Valley Heights senior Emma Toerber looked at her younger sisters — Catherine, a junior, and Maggie, a freshman — when the shot went in. St. Mary’s Colgan freshman Lily Brown beat the final buzzer of the Class 2A girls’ semifinal with a 10-foot jumper to take the 40-38 win Friday night, earning the Lady Panthers a spot in Saturday’s state championship.
It will be St. Mary’s first title game appearance.
But for the Toerbers and the rest of their Mustang teammates, Friday marked the end of the season.
“There’s a lot of sadness that builds up into this, but I’ve had the honor just to play all four years here,” Emma Toerber said. “I’ve gotten to play for a wonderful coach and two of my sisters. This isn’t the game that we wanted to end on but I couldn’t have asked for a better season and better team.”
Toerber is Valley Heights’ lone senior.
The rest of the team will return for another go-round next year.
For the eldest Toerber, however, Friday was the last time she ever will suit up in a Mustang uniform. The fact that two of her teammates are her sisters helped cushion the blow — despite the tears welling in her eyes, just above her mask, outside of the tunnel in Bramlage Coliseum.
“It was a highlight of my life,” Toerber said. “I will never forget that. Playing with family is just a totally different feeling than playing pick-up with your best friends and that’s something I’m going to hold on to for the rest of my life. They’re going to be amazing athletes and have a great work ethic. I’m excited to come back and watch them.”
Valley Heights head coach Jordan Broxterman sees Toerber as the latest in a proud lineage of upperclassmen who recently have helped elevate the Mustangs’ program to where it now resides: a fixture in the state tournament. Toerber’s absence will be felt, but the Mustangs (20-2) are young, hungry and expect to be right back in the mix for the state title next season.
“Seniors from years past built the foundation for what we’re trying to do at Valley Heights, and we’ve had some great leaders,” Broxterman said. “Our younger kids have bought into that, and when you’re a junior and a senior, you know how to handle your business, because you’ve seen how it’s done. We should be solid again next year.”
The first half was one to forget for both teams. Valley Heights struggled to hit much of anything, shooting 28% from the floor, including going 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
Colgan, meanwhile, doubled that shooting percentage but turned the ball over 10 times in the first two quarters, wasting the perfect opportunity to pull away from a Mustang team that could not score in the half.
“Early on, we just could not buy a basket,” Broxterman said. “We missed a lot of close buckets, and that just put us behind the 8-ball. We were scrambling. From then on, it was just about grit and fighting to get back, and that’s exactly what we did. We were a tougher group in the second half than we were in the first, and that’s (a credit to) these girls. I’m super proud of their efforts.”
Things had to change in the second half for Valley Heights.
Enter junior center Emma Yungeberg.
After a four-point first half, Yungeberg exploded, taking whatever she wanted inside, ending the night with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Eighteen of those points came from shots within three feet of the basket.
“At halftime, we talked about her turning into a beast, which she did,” Broxterman said. “She played like that all year, and usually we have girls playing like that around her, too. Usually she’s a beast inside, and that opens things up around her. But we didn’t shoot well from outside tonight.”
Led by Yungeberg, Valley Heights began their slow rally, finally taking a 35-34 lead with 5:52 remaining. But Yungeberg picked up her fourth foul soon after that and sat for the next few of minutes, halting Valley Heights’ momentum.
“You knew it was going to be a grind,” said Colgan head coach Abby Farabi, whose team improved to 19-3. “You’re at the state tournament trying to get to the state championship game, so if you jump out (to a lead) too early, you can’t get too confident. They’re a good team and they’re physical and they can really get the ball inside. I told them in the locker room before the game that today was going to be a roller coaster, so jump on and ride the hills — and they did.”
Yungeberg returned to the floor with 2:48 to play, but a reaching foul with 1:25 to go put her back on the bench for the rest of the game, leaving the Mustangs searching for another answer offensively.
They came close: freshman Maggie Toerber missed a layup with under a minute to play. With 20.7 seconds left, Farabi called timeout and set up the game-winning shot from Brown, who led the Panthers with 12 points. Senior Kaitlin Crossland had 11 points for the Lady Panthers.
Farabi can’t wait for the chance to help the school capture its first state championship.
“Tuesday was our first win in the state tournament, and we weren’t satisfied,” she said. “We knew coming in that we had a good chance, and I just can’t say enough good things about these kids and how hard they’ve worked. They’ve really bought in.”