When Stanton needed a play, Jaiden Hartl was there.
The 5-foot-7 junior ignited a pair of Mustang rallies — both offensively and defensively — helping lead Stanton (22-3) to a 46-39 win over defending Class C2 state champion Howells-Dodge in the C2-4 subdistrict final at Norfolk Catholic Activities Center on Thursday.
"Liz (Christensen) about gave me a heart attack a couple times in the second half. When we got that steal, and she hit that 15-footer with three girls around her, I was yelling at them to pull it back," Stanton coach Greg Wegner said. "But that was a big shot."
Christensen's pull-up jumper was the product of a Hartl steal and the first of back-to-back assists from Hartl that capped a 6-0 run that came after Howells-Dodge had taken a 30-28 lead when Macey Kulhanek dished to Grace Dvorak for a layup with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
Up 34-30 after Hartl hooked up with Bree Burtwistle at the 5:36 mark, Stanton never trailed again. The Jaguars twice got within a point — at 34-33 and 38-37 — but senior Hannah Heppner had the final answer.
After back-to-back baskets from Heppner in the paint pushed the lead to 42-37, the 5-11 senior blocked back-to-back shot attempts as the Jaguars tried to narrow the gap. The closest they could get was 42-39.
"I thought Hannah hitting that 17-footer when we were up 40-37 was huge. I told her all night — she struggled with their size, and (Erin) Prusa is a great defender — that we still needed to go through her," Wegner said. "Inside-out to Bree for a couple shots was huge, and then she finally took it at her and made a huge bucket."
The high-low game of Burtwistle and Heppner - who combined for 22 points and five assists — also helped create outside offense for Stanton in the first half. Hartl splashed consecutive 3s and were followed by another from Jessie Brandl for a 9-0 second-quarter run to put Stanton up 22-14 with 1:08 left.
"They open up a lot for us with the high-low and, even when they're not open, they kick it out to us," Hartl said. "It's super easy to shoot when they kick out because my feet are set and everything's already going toward the hoop."
The Jaguars, who led 8-3 following a Macey Kulhanek layup in the opening quarter, closed the halftime gap to 23-20 with Kulhanek dishing to Dvorak for a buzzer-beating layup.
Kulhanek, who scored 27 points in a win over Lutheran High Northeast on Tuesday, was limited to six points Thursday. Dvorak and Erin Prusa, though, combined for 25 points and six assists with their own high-low work.
"That's been our strength all season, and the girls keep going to that. With this team, we were always kind of trying to figure out who was going to be the one for us to have a big game and who was going to be secondary," Howells-Dodge coach Scott Polacek said. "Macey has just been super hot and leading us the last three games, so I'm sure it was in their scouting report to work on her a little bit."
The Jaguars finished with 26 turnovers as Hartl led a pesky Stanton press with five steals. Brandl added four steals, and Heppner blocked six shots to help limit the offensive production for a program that hasn't had its production limited in the postseason often in recent years.
Before winning a state title last year, the Jaguars were the 2016 Class D1 runners-up and the third-place finishers in D1 in 2015.
"That senior class, they won 80 games in their high-school careers. They finish 80-29 for their career. I wonder how many girls in the state can say that? Very few," Polacek said. "That's an incredible run, and it's a shame it had to end here today. But we played a good team, and they took care of business."
Heppner and Burtwistle worked for 11 points each to lead Stanton, with Christensen also reaching double figures with 10. Heppner added 13 rebounds, and Burtwistle grabbed eight for the top-seeded Mustangs.
As the No. 1 seed in the C2-7 subdistrict a year ago, Stanton was beaten by Battle Creek — a loss that wasn't lost on the Mustangs this year.
"We know how bad that hurt, and we didn't want to repeat it. That's our biggest motivation," Hartl said. "We know that we didn't want our last game to be on this court."
Howells-Dodge (12-12).......8 12 10 9—39
Stanton (22-3)........9 14 5 18—46
HD: Grace Dvorak 6-11 3-6 15, Tonya Brester 1-2 0-0 3, Macey Kulhanek 3-12 0-0 6, Erin Prusa 4-11 2-4 10, Jessi Brester 1-4 1-2 4, Cassie Pieper 0-1 0-0 0, Madyson Cech 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 15-42 7-14 39.
S: Jaiden Hartl 2-8 2-2 8, Bree Burtwistle 4-11 3-5 11, Jessie Brandl 2-8 0-0 5, Hannah Heppner 5-14 1-3 11, Liz Christensen 3-13 4-4 10, Allie Spence 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 16-44 11-16 46.
3-point field goals: H-D 2-8 (T. Brester 1-2, J. Brester 1-3); STA 3-16 (Hartl 2-6, Brandl 1-5). Rebounds: H-D 25 (Kulhanek 5, Dvorak 5, Prusa 4, J. Brester 4); STA 32 (Heppner 13, Burtwistle 8, Christensen 5, Hartl 4). Assists: H-D 13 (Prusa 4, J. Brester 4, Kulhanek 3, Dvorak 2); STA 14 (Hartl 5, Brandl 3, Heppner 3, Burtwistle 2). Steals: H-D 8 (Pieper 3, T. Brester 2); STA 15 (Hartl 5, Brandl 4, Heppner 3, Christensen 2). Blocked shots: H-D 5 (Prusa 3); STA 6 (Heppner 6). Turnovers: H-D 26; STA 16.