Panthers wing Eagles, 66-52, advance to Class A championship game
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's becoming a habit for the Ellsworth Panthers.
With a 66-52 victory over Norman County East Friday in the state semifinals, the Panthers advance to the Class A boys' state basketball championship game for the third consecutive year -- searching for their second consecutive title.
"It's like a dream come true," Cody Schilling said. "Last year, I almost took it like I was a senior because it's so tough to get here. There are hundreds of teams that want to be where we're at. To get to the championship three years in a row, it's tough. We need everyone stepping up; you don't get to the state championship three years in a row with one or two guys. It feels exactly like last year, and hopefully we'll get the same outcome."
Ellsworth (30-2), which finished second two years ago before being crowned state champions last year, will face a high-scoring Minnesota Transitions Charter team today at noon in the Target Center.
"They are very quick and very athletic," Ellsworth head coach Markus Okeson said. "We're going to have to execute very well and limit our turnovers to have a chance."
Minnesota Transitions Charter defeated last year's state runner-up, Cass Lake-Bena, 87-77, earlier Friday.
"They have three solid guards on the outside that all try to blow by you," Schilling said. "They're probably going to wait for a mismatch and find someone slower on a guard and try to penetrate. We have to come out and bring defensive intensity."
While MTC will play an up-tempo game, Norman County East played just the opposite. The Eagles (25-6) played a physical game, and out rebounded the Panthers 34-27.
"It was very physical; bodies were flying everywhere, but our kids stayed focused and got it done," Okeson said. "It wasn't our defense; it was that we didn't rebound very well. We didn't defensive rebound very well, and they had a lot of offensive boards and lot of second-chance points. We have to sure that up for tomorrow."
Tyler Bennefeld led the Eagles with 16 rebounds, and also scored 18 points in the game.
"Bennefeld is tough," NCE head coach Mike Sather said. "We wanted to go inside to him and give him his touches, but we were hoping that we could make them collapse down and get some outside shots. Ellsworth is a very big team."
Bennefeld had seven offensive rebounds, but five of those rebounds came in a tight first half.
"(Bennefeld) got loose on us a few times," Okeson said. "He worked extremely hard and we didn't match his intensity and he took advantage of that."
A day after becoming the state's all-time leading scorer, Schilling scored a game-high 30 points to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists.
"When you have Cody Schilling out there running the show, it's tough," Sather said. "When he handles the ball so well and scores as many points as he did, he's going to be a handful. Our kids gave it all they had, and we're going to hold our heads up high."
However, it wasn't a perfect game for Schilling, who was just two-of-six from the free throw line in the first half.
"They were using a new ball, and between my hands and the new ball, I just couldn't hold on to it," Schilling said. "I don't want to make excuses, but in the second half, I told myself that I have to step up and hit free throws. I always get mad at other people for missing free throws. When you put both halves together, it's not bad, but the first half was bad."
Schilling was a perfect 13-of-13 from the line in the second half, including eight-for-eight in the final five minutes.
"He just let the game come to him," Okeson said. "He missed a few free throws early, but made them all down the stretch, so he did a nice job."
A trey from Taylor Bennefeld (team-high 20 points) gave the Eagles an early 8-3 advantage, but Adam Van Der Stoep (11 points) hit a layup to cut the deficit to two and started an 11-3 run that gave Ellsworth a 14-11 advantage.
The Eagles' Ethan Opsahl hit a trey midway through the first half to cut NCE's deficit to one, 19-18, but that would be as close as the Eagles would get in the first half.
However, with 4:42 remaining, NCE's leading scorer, David Varriano (17 points per game) was injured while driving to the basket, and did not return for the Eagles.
"When we lost Varriano that hurt us," Sather said. "He's our leading scorer and our senior leader, but I thought our kids rallied around that a little bit. In a game with Ellsworth, I thought we had to score at least 70 points to beat them. We just didn't have enough firepower. They gave it all they had, and that's all we can ask."
With a four-point lead and the ball in the closing seconds of the first half, Ellsworth guard Tom Nolte's only shot of the day came from beyond the arc on the right wing - increasing the Panther lead to 31-24 at halftime.
The Panthers had the first possession of the second half, and made the most of it. Trevor Gruis (10 points, nine rebounds) hit a jump shot as Ellsworth continued to push its lead.
"Right at the end of the first half, we were down by four and they had the ball," Sather said. "The kid hits the deep 3 in the corner to put them up seven. I think it was the only shot he made in the game, and that was a big momentum swing, especially when they get the first possession in the second half -- which they scored on. It means that we go from being down by four to being down by nine without ever touching the ball."
Gruis, who picked up his fourth foul with 7:33 remaining, later hit a free throw as part of an 11-2 run that gave Ellsworth a 14-point lead, 46-32.
"I had some foul trouble there at the end," Gruis said. "They weren't giving me a lot down low, but I shot my free throws. I made those today, actually."
NCE made a run midway through the second half, but just as quick, the Panthers opened up a 16-point lead behind the free throw shooting of Schilling.
"We were within six, we just didn't have enough scorers," Sather said. "We just didn't have anyone that we could put on Schilling that could stop them. That was key."
The Eagles cut the lead to nine points on two occasions (59-50 and 61-52), but a pair of foul shots from Schilling and another from Van Der Stoep gave Ellsworth a 66-52 victory and a shot at another title.
"It's great to be back there again," Gruis said. "Hopefully we'll do what we can and see what happens."
Despite the Panthers' winning ways, a club that has yet to lose to a Class A opponent this season, Okeson said the team isn't taking anything for granted.
"I can tell for our seniors, it's obviously their last go around, and for our sophomores and juniors and whoever, we may never get here again, so you have to play this game like it's your final one," Okeson said.
Ellsworth 31 35 - 66
Norman County East 24 28 - 52
Ellsworth (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) DeBerg 0-2-0-4, Schilling 1-6-15-30, Van Der Stoep 2-2-1-11, B. Gruis 0-4-0-8, T. Gruis 0-2-6-10, Nolte 1-0-0-3. Totals 4-16-22-66.
NCE (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Varrian 1-0-0-3, Ta. Bennefeld 4-1-6-20, Opsahl 1-1-0-5, Liebl 0-2-0-4, Ty. Bennefeld 0-8-2-18, Sather 0-1-0-2. Totals 6-13-8-52.