Boys’ hoops: Quick start isn’t enough for Panthers in repeat section loss

For the second year in a row DeLaSalle beat Spring Lake Park to capture the Section 3AAA title. This year the Islanders won by a  71-61 score despite some early plays by Spring Lake Park.

Last season the Panthers were the top seed while the Islanders garnered top seed and ranking all season as the defending state champions winners of 77 games over the last three seasons, including a 26-1 mark this year.

This year the Panthers (15-14) jumped to a 12-3 lead before DeLaSalle took a slim lead entering halftime up 41-37.

The strong start was exactly what Spring Lake Park coach Grant Guzy wanted from his team at the start which was in its fifth section final in seven seasons. Junior TC Robinson sank a three pointer feet in front of the Islanders bench to make it 12-3 which forced DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson to call an early time out at less than three minutes into the game.

“Our guys were ready,” Panthers coach Grant Guzy about the quick start. “We wanted to let them know they were in a basketball game here. Our guys were focused and fired up and ready to match their intensity and they were little bit more intense than they were. Usually that doesn’t happen with a team like DeLaSalle.”

Robinson made another three pointer from even deeper in the corner of the court to keep Spring Lake Park ahead 15-10. DeLaSalle countered with a quick basket in transition and eventually tied the game at 18 with an emphatic dunk by one of the state’s top three junior recruits Reid Travis at 10:26.

Travis became a focus on the following possessions as the Panthers seemingly didn’t have an answer for the heavily-recruited (Tubby Smith was in the stands) 6-7 forward.

Panthers 6-4 senior Justin Axelson was the primary defender but foul trouble forced Guzy to rethink that option. Axelson picked up a third foul with 1:26 remaining in the first half and despite playing sparingly in the second half, fouled out with 8:26 on the clock with only two points. When Axelson was in the game he did his job along with 6-2 junior Eji Ejiya and the rest of the Panthers defense. They limited Travis to a team-high 16 points in what was several points off from his season average.

Ejiya saw the most varsity minutes of his young varsity career and coincidently had his best performance yet. “We knew we needed to have him ready to match Travis because [Eji] is a big-strong kid inside,” Guzy said, wanting to match the Islanders physicalness inside.

While Travis garnered the bulk of the defensive attention, DeLaSalle senior guard Luke Scott hit his shots from the outside, contributing 13 points and really made the offense work through his intensity on the court.  “We lost him on a few sets and he hit a few big shots to push their lead after we got back into the game,” Guzy said. “He’s deadly from outside.”

Thorson concurred with Guzy’s observation saying: “He’s one of the state’s top shooters. Frankly, we’re surprised when he misses

Spring Lake Park cut the game to one point a couple times and tied it at 50-50 with less than nine minutes left. Senior Gary Cook picked up a rebound from his own missed shot and put the ball back off the glass to tie the game.

“For us to go blow-by-blow says a lot about our team after the tough February we had,” Guzy said about the Panthers focus. “To win two section games to reach the championship game and have the opportunity to beat the best team in the state, bar-class, to get to the state tournament is just a testament to the character of our players.

“All our players went out there and played their game. We like to push the ball and we got to loose balls and got out on the fast break and I don’t think they expected that [early on],” he added.

Another highlight from the evening came with 13:08 left in the second half. Ejiya knocked the ball free from behind Travis. Robinson took the ball to end-to-end and as he attempted a lay-up, an Islanders player pulled the ball off the rim for a goaltending call on a big-time hustle play. Robinson was credited for the basket and two points of a game-high 17 points.  Travis was kept to 16 points to lead DeLaSalle.  Panthers senior Gary Cook had 15 points and senior Robert Ben added 14 points. Senior guard Travis Hall had only nine points but those three-pointers came at high-pressure times for the Panthers.  “He’s a tough,  competitive kid for his size and put in a lot of work,” Guzy said. “He’s a little streaky at times but he’s had an awesome section tournament (25 points in 3 games).”

Look for Robinson to return to run the point next season with perhaps added contributions from Ejiya and six other juniors on the roster.

In the end, the pedigree and experience that comes from a one-loss season helped DeLaSalle build on its lead until the final buzzer in front of what Thorsen said was six decades of Islanders basketball in the stands which saw the team reach the finals more than a dozen times in 19 seasons.

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