The Cardinals opened up their playoff run with a 36-point win over the Somerset Spartans, but head coach Nick Johnson said his team's game "wasn't as easy as the score may have looked."
"It was a close game for the first 14 minutes of the first half, but then our defense really turned it up."
Prescott was able to hold the Spartans to just 23 first-half points after shaking off their slow start.
"You could kind of tell that we had some first-playoff-game jitters, and we weren't making a ton of shots right away," Johnson said, "but our defense helped keep us in the game. We got a lot of run-outs and easy buckets because of our defensive pressure."
No one player stuck out defensively for Johnson; he felt his entire team took its defensive play to the next level.
Offensively, Peter Brookshaw led the way with 27 points. Parker Nielsen recorded 21 points, while Joe Roosen added 11, and Brian Tayson had nine points of his own.
With the win, the Cardinals advanced to their fifth consecutive WIAA regional final game on Saturday, March 3 where they saw Saint Croix Central (16-8) for the third time this season. As always, the Panthers put up a fight against their seemingly untouchable Middle Border Conference opponents, and this time, the matchup came down to one final possession.
The Panthers had a shot at tying the game in the final seconds, but after the shot went up, the final score stayed set at 59-56 in Prescott's favor.
"That was quite the game," Johnson said. "I give so much credit to SCC's coaching staff, they had a very good game plan. I thought their players played very well and they frustrated our players. We didn't play our best, but I give them a lot of credit."
SCC led 9-2 at the beginning of the game, and managed a 29-28 halftime lead after trading buckets with Prescott throughout the first half. The Cardinals turned things around after the break and controlled the lead for most of the second half but by small margins.
"We found a way to win, and the the bottom line in the playoffs is to just win," Johnson said.
SCC forced the Cardinals into a slower-paced game than what they're used to, and maintained 30-to-40-second offensive possessions throughout the game.
"That kind of wore us down," Johnson said. "I just thought they played very smart, didn't turn the ball over, and they made us play their style."
Johnson's team had beaten SCC by 14- and 27-point margins in the regular season, but never dismissed their top-notch conference opponents.
"Our guys never overlooked them, our coaching staff never overlooked them at all," Johnson said, "but it is good to play close games. We haven't had a close game that came down to the wire since Lake City, so it's good to be put in those positions to see how kids can handle it."
The Cardinals will now be tasked with handling the Ellsworth Panthers for the third time this season as both teams advance to the WIAA section semifinals on Thursday, March 8. The Panthers won their regional final game by defeating the No. 2-seeded Bloomer Blackhawks 63-42 on the road.
Prescott served Ellsworth two of their four regular season losses earlier in the season, but those wins mean nothing in March.
"We beat Ellsworth by quite a bit last time, but I think now our kids realize that that doesn't mean anything," Johnson said. "I think that was a big eye-opener last night. We know we're going to get Ellsworth's best game on Thursday night. We've said all year how Central and Ellsworth are two of the best teams on our side of the state in the division."
But as the saying goes, "Respect all, fear none."
"We respect Ellsworth, but we know we're a very good team," Johnson said the day after his team's regional final championship. "We just have to play better than we did last night."
The Cardinals and Panthers will see each other once more this season at New Richmond High School for the Division 2 WIAA Sectional 1 Semifinal game, which begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 8.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere," Johnson said of the upcoming sectional semifinal game. "A Prescott vs. Ellsworth sectional is pretty cool."