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BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE The Southwest Christian Eagles hold aloft their Section 3A South team trophy following their boys basketball victory in Marshall Friday night.

Section 3A South boys basketball finals: Southwest Christian prevails

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Les Knutson

Daily Globe

MARSHALL — A blistering start and a strong finish allowed Southwest Minnesota Christian to dominate the game’s first eight minutes and take control again over the last 14, as the high-flying Eagles soared to a 73-46 victory Friday evening over a scrappy Ellsworth High School squad in the Section 3A South boys’ basketball championship game at the R/A Facility on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall.

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The game pitted two Red Rock Conference rivals who have each experienced tremendous tournament success in the past decade and was a basketball fan’s delight for most of the middle 14 minutes — which was very evenly played.

But in the end, the Eagles simply had too much team balance and too much overall basketball savvy, which lifted the defending Class A state champions back to a third straight section title game. SWC (25-2) will battle the Canby Lancers (24-4) for the right to return to the state tournament in the Section 3 championship game at 8 p.m. Thursday at SMSU.

Canby scored the game’s final 11 points and rallied to defeat two-time champion Dawson-Boyd (23-3) in the Section 3A North title clash Friday night at SMSU, 62-58.

Earlier, Southwest Christian utilized a 26-9 start and a 36-13 finish to earn its way back to the section finals.

“Our kids really got after it,” declared a pleased Eagles’ head coach Jamie Pap. “We started out so well. Give Ellsworth a lot of credit, they came back on us and gave us a great battle. I really like that Kramer (Johnathon) kid, he plays with a lot of energy and never gives up.”

Ellsworth, which finished another fine season with a 21-7 overall record, outscored the Eagles by a 24-11 margin during a stretch from the 10:07 mark of the first half until sharp-shooting senior guard Mitchell Leuthold (team-high 16 points) drilled his fourth three-pointer, bringing the Panthers to within four points, 37-33, with 14:15 remaining in the game.

Kramer, who passed for a game-high nine assists, directed the EHS offense with precision during that span, distributing the ball to Leuthold for long-range shots and finding 6-5 senior center Drew Cheskie (14 points, five rebounds, three blocks, three steals) on several dandy pick-and-roll plays.

But prior to Ellsworth’s impressive rally, the opening eight minutes belonged to the Eagles.

Starting with a wide-open hoop from 6-2 junior forward Jay DeBoer (assist Luke Nibbelink), the defending champs were clicking on all cylinders and vaulted out of the gate with an eye-opening 26-9 burst, capped by another inside bucket by DeBoer (assist Leighton Sampson).

“It was fun,” summed up DeBoer, who helped sing the National Anthem prior to tip-off. “We knew that Ellsworth would be paying a lot of attention to Leighton, so I was able to get open a few times and my teammates found me with great passes.”

DeBoer also hit a mid-range baseline jumper (assist Nibbelink) during that opening eight-minute surge and fired a pair of assists himself. He later blocked a shot during Ellsworth’s first-half rally, which prevented the Panthers from slicing the lead down to three points.

“Jay played really well, after doing a super job on the anthem,” praised Pap. “Maybe, we should have him sing like that before every game.”

While DeBoer (13 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks) was a big part of SWC’s success, his teammates were motoring up and down the court and — as always — were playing tough defense and sharing the ball on offense.

Five different players scored points for the Eagles for those first 26, and five different guys had assists.

By game’s end, seven Eagles combined for a total of 19 assists and eight players scored.

“We pride ourselves on our team balance and the guys showed that again tonight,” exclaimed Pap. “Everyone contributed and this was a nice win for our team over a good Ellsworth team, which never folded, never gave up.”

Sampson leads Eagles

with 23 points, including

nine early in second half

Sampson, who finished with a game-high 23 points (nine in the first 3:49 of the second half), was on the receiving end of some fine passes and netted a dozen first-half points. He blocked four shots, snagged seven rebounds, came up with a trio of steals and passed for a pair of assists in another stellar all-around performance for the Eagles.

Nate Pfeifle injured his right elbow (shooting arm) in practice earlier in the week and was unable to hit an outside shot the entire first half. But he connected for 13 second-half points, drilling a trio of three-pointers during the Eagles’ strong second-half finish. Pfeifle claimed five defensive rebounds and scored his first points after working for an offensive rebound.

Guards Clayton Huisken (seven rebounds, team-high six assists, four points, two points) and Nibbelink (13 points, five assists) were effective for SWC, both offensively and defensively, providing stability on the perimeter. Nibbelink, who was a perfect six-of-six at the free throw line, scored on a dazzling move to finish an Eagles’ fast break, giving his team a huge 69-44 advantage with 2:25 left.

That play — coming after a Sampson block — capped a 32-11 run for the Eagles over a 12-minute stretch, after Ellsworth had pulled with four (37-33).

“Southwest is really good,” summed up Ellsworth head coach JD Roberts. “They beat us by 20 or more each time this season. After they started out as well as they did, we could have folded up. But we didn’t. Our kids battled back very well and played some good basketball for the last 10 minutes of the first half and then we started out strong in the second half. We missed some shots when they started pulling away and then it got away from us.”

The Panthers held SWC scoreless during a 10-0 first half run (from 10:07 to 5:39) as Cheskie scored twice on feeds from Kramer and both Leuthold and Nolte took passes from Kramer and knocked down three-pointers.

The rest of the first half was closely-contested. Ellsworth came within five (29-24) on a Leuthold trey (coming off a double screen and catching a pass from Kramer). But two chances to slice the gap to three were rejected by Eagle blocks (DeBoer and Sampson) and SWC took a 33-26 edge into intermission.

Cheskie’s reverse layup (assist Kramer) finished the half, with EHS riding the momentum of an overall 17-7 run over the last 10 minutes.

Buckets by Sampson and DeBoer offset a hoop by Cheskie in the first minute of the second half and the Eagles were up 37-28. Cheskie scored again and Leuthold buried his fourth trey (assist Kramer).

The Eagles countered with four consecutive baskets from Sampson (assists Nibbelink, Nibbelink, Huisken, Silas Top) offsetting a jumper by Kramer and drive by Leuthold, giving them a 46-37 lead with 12:54 to play.

Then, after a pair of free throws by Nibbelink, Pfeifle suddenly got hot and five minutes later the score was 58-39.

SWC scored 10 of the next 15 points and reserves finished the last 2:15. Dayton Van Hulzen converted a steal into a layup and Jacob Kreun scored on a drive for the Eagles, while Malik Herman sank a pair of free throws for the Panthers.

Ellsworth 26 46

SW Christian 33 73

ELLSWORTH (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Nolte 1-0-0-3, Kramer 1-1-0-5, M. Leuthold 4-1-2-16, Herman 0-0-2-2, Kruse 0-2-2-6, Cheskie 0-7-0-14. Totals 6-11-6-46.

SW CHRISTIAN (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Huisken 0-2-0-4, Pfeifle 3-2-0-13, Kreun 0-1-0-2, Van Hulzen 0-1-0-2, Nibbelink 1-2-6-13, Top 1-0-0-3, DeBoer 0-4-5-13, Sampson 0-10-3-23. Totals 5-22-14-73.

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