Basketball: Fighting Saints use early lead to win section title

St. Francis builds early 19-3 lead to avenge 2013 section semifinal loss to Andover

Last season Andover upset St. Francis in the Section 7AAAA semifinal before winning its fourth section title in program history.

The Huskies lost to Edina in the state quarterfinals but returned nearly everyone for a repeat attempt.

St. Francis senior Jake Johnson, front, goes hard to the basket during the Section 7AAAA semifinal win against Blaine. Photo by Jason Olson

St. Francis senior Jake Johnson, front, goes hard to the basket during the Section 7AAAA semifinal win against Blaine. Photo by Jason Olson

This year the two met in the section final but it was top-seeded St. Francis that took an early 19-3 lead en route to a 66-55 win over second-seeded Andover and its fourth section title since 1990.

The Fighting Saints return to state for the first time since 2000.

St. Francis came out ready to go from the opening tip as Jake Johnson and Blake Moreno scored 16 and 14 points inside. Saints guard Bryce Kulsrud was red-hot from the outside, scoring 14 points (on four 3-pointers in the second half) as was guard Nate Svihel with nine points.

Svihel made back-to-back 3-pointers in the first half to push the lead to 19-3 and ignite both student sections inside the full bleachers at North Branch High School.

“Give them credit,” Huskies coach Matt Aune said. “We were more tentative and part of it was we [played zone defense] and we couldn’t corral loose rebounds and couldn’t get our shots to fall. We were tentative on the offensive end too.”

Senior Evan Olson drew the assignment to cover Johnson and the Saints countered with more scoring chances for Moreno inside or kicking the ball outside.

Jake McNallan led Andover with 22 points while the program’s all-time leading scorer Connor Wilkie was kept in check with 10 points after averaging 17 points all season.

Saints coach Ryan Hauge noticed his team was ready to go from the time the boarded the bus. “Of course it’s easy to say now but we had that feeling that we were going to win from the time we got onto the bus,” he said. “The guys were loose but focused. We felt in control the entire game after we didn’t play our best basketball in the first two [section] games.”

Hustling to grab rebounds and loose balls led to the one-sided start.

“We strung together some runs, dominated the glass and with the 50/50 balls made some hustle plays,” Hauge said.

Andover had seven turnovers in the first half and trailed 26-12 at the half.

The Huskies didn’t play poor defense in the first half, according to Aune, instead, “they got us into a hole we couldn’t climb out of. We calmed ourselves down a bit as the game moved on and give the kids credit to play with a lot of heart.

“Every time we made a shot, [St. Francis] came back with a three [point-basket].”

Andover's Kyle Kettler, middle, splits between two Anoka players, Nick Greenberg, left, Travis Bengston, right, during the Section 7AAAA semifinal. Photo by Jason Olson

Andover’s Kyle Kettler, middle, splits between two Anoka players, Nick Greenberg, left, Travis Bengston, right, during the Section 7AAAA semifinal. Photo by Jason Olson

Johnson left the floor early into the second half after picking up his third foul and picked up a fourth foul with 4:40 left.

Andover tried take advantage with the Saints leading scorer on the bench.

The Huskies pulled within 11 points in the later stages of the game before the Saints pushed the lead again for the final score.

Looking back on the last two seasons, Aune  praised the chemistry among the team.

“I could coach another 20 years and not have the chemistry on this team with the four senior leaders,” he said. “It was a pleasure to have these guys on the team and they made my job a whole lot easier with their hard work and emotion in the locker room. It was really indicative of how they cared for each other.”

This marks the end of Aune’s first year as head coach of the program.

Huskies senior Kyle Kettler reached the 1,000 career-point mark with a late lay-up, the second to last basket for the Huskies. McNallan stole the ball at midcourt but gave the ball up, knowing Kettler was close to the milestone.

Kettler fouled out of the game on the following defensive stand.

The Fighting Saints traveled well to conference neighbor North Branch and Hauge hopes the buzz around St. Francis continues at Target Center.

Hauge said the team enjoyed the bus ride home late Friday and he gave the team the weekend off from practice.

The Saints face No. 3 seed Cretin-Derham Hall in the first round of the state tournament.

Hauge likes the match-up with the team that took down defending state champion Apple Valley in double overtime to win the section.

“They beat Apple Valley for a reason but we feel like we can compete with them,” Hauge said. “They have tremendous shooters but we also shoot the ball really well but we’re deeper, quicker and are capable of banging.”

Hauge likes the size advantage of the Saints with Johnson at 6-foot-8 and Moreno at 6-foot-6 compared to Cretin junior wing Sam Neumann at 6-foot-6 and junior Frank Delaney at 6-foot-7.

Jason Olson is at 

jason.olson@ecm-inc.com

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