Blaine led top-seed St. Francis early in the Section 7AAAA semifinal but a combination of making shots under pressure and generating turnovers at the right time helped the Saints earn a 68-54 win and a spot in the finals.
Last year the Saints were in a similar position, facing upstart Andover in the semifinals, but the Huskies rode a stellar first half to the semifinal upset and eventually the section title.
St. Francis 6-foot-8 senior forward and Northern State signee Jake Johnson struggled to find the hoop in the first half as did fellow interior player Blake Moreno.
Both finished the game with game-highs of 19 points, 12 points from Nate Svihel and 10 points from Bryce Kulsrud. Blaine countered with 15 points from senior guard Matt Barthels, 14 points from Jason Travis and 10 points from Chris Novak.
The Bengals started strong and led 31-25 at the half but rebounds and second-chance points, 33-14, proved to be enough.
Blaine sophomore Ben Scherer and junior Andy Leo frustrated the Saints offense in the paint in the first half. That frustration gave way to open looks in the second half and a 20-point advantage in the second half.
“They’re kids are tough and strong and out rebounded us in the first half and we didn’t play very well defensively. Jake wasn’t Jake in the first half and they took advantage of us,” Saints coach Ryan Hauge said. “I was happy it was only six, to be honest with you.”
Blaine did a good job of frustrating Johnson and Moreno inside with cherer and Leo. On the perimeter, the defense by Bengals guard Chris Novak gave Saints senior guard Cody Wald trouble at time and kept the Saints uncomfortable.
“Good teams will adjust at halftime which they did and in reality find a weakness and hit it,” Arzdorf said. “At times we found some things to exploit but they have a lot of good basketball players.”
St. Francis came back after being down 12 points against Blaine to win the previous meeting 71-68, Dec. 20.
Coming into the semifinal, Arzdorf said he felt his team was ready to go after a record-setting first round win against Forest Lake 95-75. “When you feel well you play good and when you don’t feel well you don’t play good,” Arzdorf said about his squad. “And we felt good coming in and the kids had some confidence coming into this game. They were better than us in the second half, plain and simple.”
That confidence lacked toward the end of the season as Blaine lost eight straight games. Arzdorf pointed to extended periods of poor play in each contest against very good teams that exploited the Bengals’ weakness.
Blaine senior Jason Travis set a new program record with 47 points against Forest Lake. Besides the point total, Arzdorf was pleased to see six different teammates assist on those baskets. “It was pretty neat to see our team recognize he was hitting his shots and kept feeding him,” Arzdorf said. “He could put the ball in the hole.”
Not being in many close games this season, Hauge said, last year the team didn’t respond in the semifinal down by eight points to Andover at the half.
“This group responded and wasn’t going to get beat that way,” Hauge said, knowing a tougher schedule against Hopkins, Shakopee and Prior Lake helped the Saints prepare for sections.
St. Francis out scored Blaine by 20 points in the second half and cleaned up on the boards.
St. Francis used those extra possessions to out score Blaine 33-14 on second chance points.
Hauge pointed to Svihel’s play on both ends of the floor as a key for the win.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a better defensive effort this season,” Hauge said about Svihel holding Travis to five points or two points until a late three pointer with the game out of reach. “He scored 15 for the game and eight on free throws. That’s a pretty impressive effort. Everyone thinks about [Nate] as a shooter and that’s fun to watch but he works his rear end off and you can appreciate that as a coach,” Hauge said.
Svihel made clutch 3-pointers down the stretch to put the game out of reach. To add emotion he did so from different spots on the floor and in front of the Saints bench or energized crowd.
St. Francis finished third in its first season in the Mississippi 8 Conference, Blue Division behind state participant Buffalo and conference runner-up St. Michael-Albertville.
Hauge appreciates the atmosphere each night in the new league.
“We had great crowds and most people in that league travel well. We’ve created some fun rivalries in just one year,” Hauge said.
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