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Luverne exacts revenge on Benson, earns Class AA state tournament berth

MARSHALL -- Trailing by six points (14-8) with 11 minutes 14 seconds to play in the first half of the Section 3AA championship boys' basketball game at Southwest Minnesota State University Thursday night, the Luverne Cardinals went on an impressive 17-5 run over the next seven minutes, earning a lead they would not relinquish.

That surge put the state tournament-bound Cardinals up by a 25-19 margin four minutes before intermission, LHS extended its lead to as much as 49-35 with 6:32 to play in the game, then held off a furious Benson rally and claimed a 60-50 victory over the Braves.

It was the third straight time that Luverne and Benson have met in the section finals, with the Cardinals now leading the series 2-1. Luverne won in 2005, 59-50, and earning a return trip Minneapolis was a motivational factor for this year's team.

"These guys played in last year's loss (67-52) and wanted to do better this year," said LHS head coach Tom Rops. "Each of them has filled his role on this team very well, and as a group have bought into the coaching staff's game plans and worked hard to execute them."

As it has been all season, defense was the name of the game for the Cardinals, who held Benson to 22 points below its season average.

"Jake (Clark) did great on (Dan) Fragodt," said LHS junior Weston Sawtelle, who finished with 20 points, six rebounds, three assists and three timely steals -- converting two of them into break-away lay-ups. "I just tried to read the pass and was able to get my hands on a couple of them."

It was a steal and lay-up by Sawtelle that gave Luverne a 32-22 lead with 44 seconds to play in the first half. Riding the momentum of a 24-8 run, the Cardinals twice had chances to stretch the lead to 12 in a wild closing 30 seconds, but Fragodt scored off a counter steal just before the halftime buzzer, trimming the Cardinal lead to 32-24.

Andrew DeBoer scored often during Luverne's first half surge -- several times off of lob passes -- tallying 12 of his 16 points during that run.

"Andrew always plays good defense and, tonight, he was a real offensive force with some penetrating drives and quick, strong inside moves," praised Rops. "He and Weston did a lot of scoring during our surge and everyone on the floor was hustling and playing good team defense."

Sawtelle had hit back-to-back 3-pointers -- off assists from Kyle Heronimus (three assists) and Clark (three offensive rebounds off missed free throws) -- that changed an 18-15 Benson lead to a 21-19 Luverne edge with 5:45 to play in the first half.

After a backdoor cut by Fragodt brought Benson to within four, 34-30, with 15:36 to go in the game, the Cardinals responded with a 15-5 burst over the next seven minutes that built the lead to 49-35.

A drive by Sawtelle, a pair of free throws by Marc Boelman (team-high 10 rebounds), two free throws by Derek Boeve (13 points) a feed from Sawtelle to DeBoer, a free throw by Sawtelle, a drive by DeBoer, a sideline inbounds play from Clark to Sawtelle and a pass from Boeve to Sawtelle accounted for Luverne's 15 points during that stretch.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals were containing the Braves and looked to be in command of the contest.

Benson, which had won 11 of its last 12 games, including a trio of tournanment thrillers in the North Sub-Section, had different ideas.

Unleashing a fullcourt press, the Braves scored six points in 29 seconds, narrowing Luverne's lead to 49-41 with 6:03 to play.

Å three-point play by sophomore Aaron Lindahl (11 points, four assists) closed the gap to 49-44 at the 5:13 mark. Boeve's free throw put LHS back up by six, but Lindahl's offensive rebound basket cut the lead to 50-46 witgh 4:42 to play.

That was the closest the Braves would get, as Boelman sank a free throw and Boeve drained a pair, lifting LHS up 53-46.

Fragodt (22 points) answered with a turn-around banker, cutting the lead to 53-48 with 2:30 on the clock, but Boeve made two more free throws, and Luverne executed a beautiful pressbreaker from Boelman to Sawtelle to Clark to go ahead 57-48 with 1:46 remaining.

Sawtelle hit Boelman for the clincher 45 seconds later, and the Cardinal delegation was going wild with the excitement of returning to the state tourney for the second time in three seasons.

"Our kids made good reads and became more aggressive," said Rops in reference to how the Cardinals overcame Benson's rally and regained control of the contest. "We needed to get organized and we never stopped hustling. We played physical and our effort was outstanding."

Fragodt, who placed fourth in the state track meet in both hurdle races last spring, finished his career at Benson with 1,466 varsity points.

"We will miss him," said BHS head coach Roger Lindahl. "This was scrappy, gutsy team that we had this season. Luverne spreads the floor and creates mismatch problems. We have a lot of respect for the way that they play."

Benson finishes at 20-10, while the Cardinals will take their 20-7 record to the Class AA quarterfinals at Williams Arena Thursday for a 1 p.m. meeting with Section 1AA champion Plainview/Elgin-Millville, 46-33 winners over Byron, in that section's finals in Rochester Thursday.

Benson 24 26 -- 50

Luverne 32 28 -- 60

Benson (3FG-2FG-FT-TP): Enderson 1-0-1-4, Lindahl 0-4-3-11, Holm 0-1-0-2, Collins 0-1-1-3, Fragodt 0-11-0-22, Chevalier 0-1-0-2, Lee 0-3-0-6. Totals -- 1-21-5-50.

Luverne (3FG-2FG-FT-TP): Clark 0-2-2-6, Boelman 0-1-3-5, Sawtelle 2-5-4-20,Boeve 1-1-8-13, DeBoer 0-8-0-16. Totals -- 3-17-60.