by Jason Olson
If the history of recent games between Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Spring Lake Park boys’ basketball was any indication, Friday’s game between not only the top two North Suburban Conference teams, but No. 1 and No. 2 ranked Class AAA programs in the state wasn’t going to disappoint.
The top-ranked Red Knights pulled out a 67-65 win on the Panthers home court Feb. 2.
Both teams entered the game with matching 16-1 overall records and 8-0 North Suburban Conference marks at the top of the standings. Benilde left with a 17-1 overall record and 9-0 in Conference action while the Panthers’ 12 game winning streak was stopped as they fell to 16-2 overall, 8-1 in the conference.
Spring Lake Park senior Sean Scott scored a game-high 36 points of which he made seven three pointers most were contested shots with hands in his face.
He pulled in 14 rebounds for the double-double, blocked five shots, mostly coming in transition and played the entire game.
The home Panthers led by three points at the break 40-37.
Panthers coach Grant Guzy said the first half was precisely what he wanted to see, a full court, up-tempo game that forced Benilde to keep up its pace.
“We were kind of on the way to a high-scoring game,” Guzy said as defense became more of a concern in the second half as Benilde out scored the Panthers 30-25.
Spring Lake Park’s Bryce Williams had a last-second three point shot from the wing hit the backboard and bounce off the rim as the game expired.
“It came down to the wire. Kind of a heartbreaker,” Guzy said as the atmosphere inside the sold-out gym seemed more like a section final than a late regular season game.
The crowd was so large that 50 fans had to watch the game on a live video feed inside the Fine Arts Center.
“In my 20 years at Park, we’ve had some nice crowds but this was the biggest I’ve ever seen,” Guzy said. “The student section behind the basket was full with jerseys and blue SLP spirt wear. We had Parent’s Night and Benilde had a great following. A number of basketball people were there too and they saw one great basketball game.”
Flip Saunders and Jim Peterson were among those watching the game.
“The atmosphere at the game was awesome,” Guzy said, pleased with the effort, but not with the final score. “We wanted to play our game as much as possible and get into that full court game,” he said. “We knew they had athletes that liked to run too.”
Guzy stuck with man-to-man defense all game with the intention of containing Craighton recruit Isaiah Zierdan who entered the game averaging 19.2 points per game.
“He’s their big gun and scorer. We tried to hold him in check and Jordan [Thimmisch-Slepcia] did a fabulous job with him but got into some foul trouble in both halves,” Guzy said as Zierdan was held to just 17 points.
Red Knights other go-to scorer, Sanjay Lumpkin (step-son of Jim Peterson and Northwestern recruit) led the team with 25 points, five more than his 20-point average. Lumpkin was clutch down the stretch making 7-of-8 free throws in the second half and scored the game-winning basket on a slick play inside.
“We defended the perimeter well,” Guzy said which opened the interior for close-in basket. Lumpkin stuck under the glass for a lay-in with 2.6 seconds left.
After calling a final time out the Panthers in-bounds pass found Williams who made a couple moves before releasing the shot from the wing.
Williams was held scoreless in the second half after scoring 12 points in the first half and averaged more than 20 points coming in.
“Bryce had a very nice game too and kept us in it early. Sean was cold early and Bryce had seven of the first 12 points,” Guzy said.
Thimmisch-Slepica finished with four rebounds and three points as Robert Ben left the game with 2:30 remaining after scoring nine points. Spring Lake Park had three players with four fouls.
Spring Lake Park led throughout the second half but missed its final three free throws and turned the ball over in the back court. Benilde tied the game with one minute to go and Scott missed a basket before setting up the game-winning play for the Red Knights.
Neither team gained more than a five or six point lead in the game.
“Both teams did a nice job getting back on defense to stop breaks, much more-so than the first half,” Guzy said. “I was pleased by the way we played in the half court too. They threw a 1-3-1 half court defense on us and we made some adjustments.”
Panthers versus Red Knights has generated some great contests in recent years. A Benilde team with Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin guard) and Armond Battle (Division 1 player) needed double overtime to solve the Panthers in the Class AAA semifinal game in 2007. They split both regular season games in 2009 which went to overtime. Cooper won the conference that season followed by Spring Lake Park in second.
Last season the Red Knights won the lone meeting by eight points en route to the conference crown.
The Panthers can’t stay down too long about the loss.
“It was a tough loss to take and there was a lot of disappointment in the locker room but we told them to keep their heads up because we’re right there,” Guzy said. “We need to bounce back against Centennial.”
Spring Lake Park faced Centennial Saturday afternoon (less than 24 hours after the intense Friday night game) and returned to conference action Monday evening against Irondale. They finish with another game Thursday in what looks more like an NBA schedule than a high school schedule.
“That’s what Flip told me after the game,” Guzy said.
Overall, Guzy was proud of the way his team handled the spotlight: “We came out really focused with that big crowd that got into it. Our guys proved that we’re right there with the top team in state and the game could’ve gone either way.”