STOUGHTON — Early holes have been a nemesis of the Portage girls basketball team throughout this season.

After escaping a 19-point hole last Friday in a win over Sauk Prairie, the Warriors were unable to overcome a 20-point halftime deficit in a 66-52 loss to Monona Grove in a Badger Challenge game at Stoughton High School on Saturday afternoon. The inaugural event got off to a sour note for Portage (6-9 overall) as the Warriors sputtered out of the gates.

Monona Grove (8-5) jumped out to an early 10-0 lead through junior McKenna Warnock. The 6-foot-2 forward, who has multiple Division I college scholarship offers, scored the Silver Eagles’ first 10 points, capped off by a slicing layup with 13 minutes, 15 seconds left in the first half.

“She’s just an all-around basketball player,” Portage coach Jessica Howe said. “She has the height, the athleticism, knows how to score from everywhere and she sees her teammates. Everyone wants five of her on their team.”

Eventually Portage got on the board, after junior Morgan Bisch hit 2 of 4 free throws to make it 12-2 with 10:50 left. Sophomore McKena Yelk added back-to-back layups to cut it to 15-6 with 9:30 remaining before the Silver Eagles started to heat up.

Monona Grove quickly snuffed out any momentum by the Warriors, going on a 15-0 run over the next six minutes to seize a 30-6 lead. Adding to the Warriors woes was the team’s foul trouble as leading scorer Mackenzie Roth exited with three personal fouls during the stretch and junior Tess Wilson was saddled with two fouls.

Portage snapped out of its skid with 3:30 left on a Yelk layup, spurring a 10-6 run to cut the deficit to 36-16 at the break.

“I’m afraid it got into their heads and then the foul issue held them back from their play,” Howe said. “That is still maturity and learning from that opportunity. Some fouls I didn’t agree with, but it doesn’t matter, mentally you have to deal with it.”

Yelk got the team off on the right foot out of the break, making a pair of free throws to cut the Silver Eagles’ lead to 36-18 with 17:50 left to play. Monona Grove quickly countered, answering with a 14-7 run over the next nine minutes, capped by a Warnock layup, to push the lead to 50-25 with 8:50 remaining.

Facing its largest deficit of the game, Portage didn’t shy away but rather battled back.

A speedy five-point spurt including a 3-pointer by Bisch and a bank shot by Yelk cut the lead back down to 20 at 50-30 with 7:40 left. Like they did during last Friday’s win over Sauk Prairie, the Warriors continued to chip away, eventually cutting the lead to 59-48 with 1:20 left following a 3-pointer by Roth.

Portage’s luck this time, however, ran out, as the Silver Eagles were able to respond, and salted the game away at the free throw line. Despite the loss, Howe was pleased with the team’s effort.

“We know our girls have the best heart,” Howe said. “they’re never going quit and if you’re patient they can figure it out at times, but it’s not good enough to have a few minutes of that.”

While Warnock led all scorers with 33 points, she was the only Silver Eagles player in double figures. Yelk notched a team-high 19 points for the Warriors, while Roth added 17, including four 3-pointers, all coming in the second half.

“They get the game and the fact they need to give it all at all times and the maturity is just going to keep going for them,” Howe said.

Even though the Warriors saw their four-game winning streak snapped, the loss came at the right time for Howe, and the first-year coach knows her team can benefit from it.

“This was a big game for them to see that we still have learning and growing to do,” she said. “We need to show up right from tipoff, keep that mental toughness throughout, and we need to learn and change from this experience.”

MONONA GROVE 66, PORTAGE 52

Portage 16 36 — 52

Monona Grove 36 30 — 66

PORTAGE — Roth 5 3-6 17, Wilson 3 1-4 7, Bisch 1 2-4 5, Belleau 1 0-0 2, Yelk 8 3-5 19, Anderson 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 9-19 52.

MONONA GROVE — Warnock 10 13-16 33, Blang 3 0-2 7, Johnson 1 0-0 2, Larsh 2 0-0 6, Nelson 1 2-2 4, Dahlhauser 1 0-1 2, Curran 2 0-0 4, DeVault 2 0-0 6, Bruns 1 0-2 2, Gorton 0 0-2 0. Totals 23 15-25 66.

3-point goals — POR 5 (Roth 4, Bisch 1), MG 5 (Blang 1, Larsh 2, DeVault 2). Total fouls — POR 21, MG 16.