The refs allowed quite a bit of physicality between No. 1 Forest Lake and No. 4 Duluth East when the two boys basketball squads met for a Section 7AAAA semifinal clash at North Branch on March 15. The result was a low-scoring, stoutly defensive affair that, eventually, turned in the Rangers’ favor, 39-35.
The defensive nature of the game emerged from the opening tip-off, with both teams struggling to create scoring runs in the first half. The Rangers had the better luck in the early going, working leads of 6-2 and 11-6. With ten minutes left in the half, the Rangers went ahead 15-10.
“It was a very physical game,” head coach Dan Cremisino said. “Sometimes sectionals can be that way. The way refs were calling the game made it so we could be very physical, and (East) had 6-9, 6-7 and 6-4 shotblockers in the lane. We didn’t make shots we normally make, even on run-outs. That’s all a recipe for a low-scoring game.”
The Greyhounds fought back to tie the game at 15-15 with six minutes to go before senior guard Jake Larson hit a pair of three throws to restore the Ranger advantage.
On each of their next two possessions, the Greyhounds had go-ahead three-point attempts fall into the hoop only to spin back out – an occurrence that was to become a theme later in the game, and one which they must be ruing after losing by only four points.
For much of what remained of the half, the Rangers and Greyhounds would trade fruitless possessions. The teams would head to the halftime break tied at only 19 points apiece. The Rangers came into the matchup averaging 72 points per game.
Larson scored six points in the first half to lead all shooters. Sophomore forward John Schrader had five at the break, while senior forward Mitch Jerde and junior guard Thad Ball each stood at four. No Greyhound player had more than four.
The shooters on both teams remained cold in the first minutes of the second half. Two minutes in, Greyhound guard Jalen Vatthauer had a go-ahead trey attempt rim out.
East guard Jack Thompson finally broke the ice with a single free-throw nearly three minutes in.
East’s Ty Seymour quickly followed with a basket-and-one to push the Greyhound lead to 23-19. East would continue to hold the advantage for most of the half.
Ranger senior forward Jack Breitbach hit a free throw and Jerde knocked down a transition layup to bring the Rangers within one.
The Greyhounds were unable to build an unassailable lead. They seemed able to hit their shots in bunches only after the Rangers had pulled close on the scoreboard. East took a 29-24 lead, only to see the Rangers claw back, assisted by the fact that the Greyhounds committed their seventh foul with more than half the period still to play. Junior forward Steven Colon hit a pair of free throws to cut into the deficit, the only bench points the Rangers would enjoy on the night.
East’s Thompson nailed a three at the other end to put the Greyhounds up 32-26, which would prove to be their widest lead. In the ten minutes and change that remained in the game, they would score only three more points.
“Our goal was to prevent their high-low action,” Cremisino said. “We switched any screens that were staggers, and we jammed any big-to-small ball screen. We did a really good job of defending.”
The Rangers also had trouble scoring; it took them until the 4:00 mark to pull even. With East up 33-30, Ball received the ball at the top of the arc. He stepped inside the three-point line with his pivot foot to make his defender move, then swung back behind the line and launched a tying shot that hit nothing but net.
“That was really the shot of the game,” Cremisino said. “Because that tied us, it allowed us to play a little bit differently, and really put the pressure on them.”
Momentum was well and truly on the Rangers’ side from then on. With two minutes left, Jerde missed a contested layup, and the battle for the rebound sent the ball bouncing toward the sideline. Larson sprinted the width of the court to save possession for the Rangers, and then passed to Schrader, who drew a foul.
The sophomore hit one of his two free-throw attempts to give the Rangers a well-earned lead. On the Greyhounds’ next trip down the court, they threw the ball out of bounds.
When the score stood at 35-33, Thompson had yet another three swirl around inside the hoop and then bounce out. It would be the Greyhounds’ last best chance to get back in the game.
The Rangers hit their free throws in the final minute to escape from the game.
Jerde and Schrader led the Rangers’ low scoring effort with 10 points each. Larson was next with nine.
In the other semifinal, No. 7 Andover continued its dream run by defeating No. 3 Coon Rapids 74-71. The Huskies had already knocked off No. 2 Blaine, the defending champions, in a 59-57 overtime battle in the quarterfinals.
“Andover has probably the best player in the section,” Cremisino said, referring to Logan Rezac, a Husky guard. “He’s capable of going off anywhere between 20 and 40. He can carry them, and they’re going to grind it out just like East did.”
The Rangers and the Huskies will play for the Section 7AAAA championship and a trip to the Class AAAA state tournament at North Branch on Friday, March 17. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.