A highly-charged atmosphere at Blaine High School set the tone for what was a classic boys’ basketball section final as No. 2 seed DeLaSalle up-ended No. 1 seed Spring Lake Park 62-55 to win the Section 3AAA title March 16.
Spring Lake Park led 28-26 at halftime thanks to stingy defense and an offense that challenged the Islanders with a quick-transition game.
“The first 18 minutes were hard-fought, back-and-forth. Both teams defended the heck out of each other. It was a very physical game,” Panthers coach Grant Guzy said.
The Panthers (23-6) ended the half with a big play. Senior forward and captain Sean Scott stood his ground as DeLaSalle’s powerful sophomore Reid Travis ran into him for a charge with 10 seconds left in the first half.
Scott stepped to the free throw line and knocked down both shots for the 28-26 lead.
The Panthers pulled ahead 39-31 with 13:30 remaining in the game before DeLaSalle came roaring back and tied the score at 48 with 4:36 left on a basket by junior guard Luke Scott. It made 12 of 19 free throws down the stretch to pull away from the Panthers, who were looking to return to state for the first time since 2009.
After losing in the first round of sections last season, captain Jordan Thimmmesch-Slepica had a feeling this was going to be a special season.
“We had a lot of returners coming back and we played with each other and gained a lot of experience,” he said. “We’ve had everyone watching us. No one believed in us but we bounced back from the bump in the road and proved them wrong.”
Captain Bryce Williams echoed Themisch-Slepica’s thoughts on the season.
“We did extremely well,” he said. “We never expected to be this good and I think 23-6 is one of the best records [in school history]. Taking home second place, it still feels good because I think we all worked really hard for it.”
According to Guzy, the Islanders seemed to shift their defense to a new level once his squad took that eight-point lead.
“They kind of ratcheted up their defense and took us out of some of our offensive sets and turned us over a few times,” Guzy said. “They also had three offensive rebounds and cashed in on two of those.”
Spring Lake Park’s offense this season featured an up-tempo transition game with a premium of pushing the ball up the court for quick points.
Another option for the Panthers offense was to isolate guard Bryce Williams and allow him to either create his own shot or find the open teammate for an easy shot.
DeLaSalle frustrated Spring Lake Park’s offense in the second half by anticipating the quick reactions and cutting off passing lanes.
“It was a little bit more of a grinding, half-court game instead of our fast-paced transition game,” Guzy said. “They were able to handle our [offensive] pressure and for the most part that is how teams have beaten us. Keeping it to a low-scoring game.”
Travis, DeLaSalle’s 6-6 sophomore power forward, had a game-high 25 points on nine of 11 shooting from the free throw line and junior guard Luke Scott added 16 points.
Travis had 14 points in the second half when he made a majority of his free throw attempts.
The Panthers’ plan to contain the biggest player on the floor came down to double-teaming when they could, but 6-4 junior center Justin Axelson was the main defender.
“We told him to bang a little bit and don’t be afraid to use your fouls because we had seen him miss in the past,” Guzy said. “Travis is an outstanding, athletic big-man and he created some match-up problems for us.”
At the other end of the floor, the Panthers tried to keep him away from the paint.
Panthers senior forward and captain Sean Scott had a team-high 16 points.
Spring Lake Park struggled to get to the free throw line, making three-of-six shots, while they hurled 26 three pointers, making only six or 23 percent from three-point range.
Guzy said his team was playing some of its best basketball of the season at the right time after a four-game losing streak in early February.
“We had a little let-down for a week after the Benilde game [67-65 loss Feb. 3] and we had a little illness that didn’t help, but we’ve been playing some of our best basketball the last couple weeks,” he said.
Two nights after an emotional 73-56 win over North Suburban Conference rival Totino-Grace in the semifinals, the Panthers had little time to recover and prepare for the biggest game of the season.
“That’s tough,” Guzy said. “We had to prepare pretty hard for Totino because it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season. but we played very well against Totino.”
Keeping the legs fresh during the off-day was hard because of the complex situations the Islanders like to use.
“We have to simulate what they do defensively then you have the legs situation,” he said. “We’re trying to save legs so we can get up and down the court so we can defend [Friday].”
DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson said the win for his team was bittersweet because of the admiration he has for the Panthers program and Guzy.
“I have so much respect for Grant and what he does,” he said. “I’m a Hamline grad and he’s a Hamline grad and throughout the course of the year, watching them play,
“I’m a big proponent of seeding the entire state. They’re one of the top [Class] 3A teams in the state and we should’ve met them next week either Thursday or Saturday.”
Looking back over the season, it’s been one remarkable ride for the Panthers. They opened the season winning 16 of games 17 and ran another winning streak to seven games leading into Friday’s section final.
Between the two winning streaks came the four-game losing streak as they finished the season 23-6 with one of the top all-time Panthers teams.
“This is one of the best-skilled teams I’ve worked with,” Guzy said. “Bryce and Sean are two outstanding basketball players and have a lot of basketball ahead of them. Jordan Thimmesch-Slepica is one of the best defenders we’ve ever had. Our four young guys who are in the top seven have done an excellent job for us and hopefully they can put in a good off-season.”
Look for Williams and Scott to represent the Panthers in the upcoming Minnesota Boys’ Basketball Coaches All-Star Series at the end of the month. The two-game series starts in St. Cloud and finishes up at Macalester College in St. Paul.