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State champions:2 starring The Ellsworth Panthers, Ellsworth beats Minnesota Transitions Charter, 81-63, to win second straight Class A state title

MINNEAPOLIS -- Entering the state tournament, Ellsworth head coach Markus Okeson told his team defense would win the Panthers a championship.

Nothing could have been more true.

The Panthers held a high-scoring Minnesota Transitions Charter team well below its average in an 81-63 victory Saturday to earn Ellsworth its second consecutive Class A boys' basketball championship.

"We came out, and we defended well night in and night out," Okeson said. "I told the kids when we got up here that defense wins state championships, and we did it."

Of course, the Panthers may have had a sign the night before.

Before the Class A championship game, Ellsworth assistant coach Steve Kellen had a dream the Panthers won by 20 points.

"I told him that when he woke up this morning that I hope he's a prophet because I didn't have the same dream," Okeson said. "Hopefully, he dreams more often."

Kellen's dream nearly came true as the Panthers dismantled the Wolves by 18 points.

"It's kind of surreal right now, and it hasn't really set in yet," Brandon Gruis said. "We just won a state championship for the second year in a row."

Against a MTS team that averaged 94 points per contest, the Panthers (31-2) used a stifling defense to hold the Wolves (28-5) to just 63 points, and 19 in the first half.

"If a team holds us to 63 points, they usually have a pretty good chance against us," MTS head coach John Sherman said. "It was one of those nights. We were a little cold from the outside, but give Ellsworth credit -- I thought they played a great defensive game."

A day after MTS' Kyle Noreen scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc, the freshman made just one long-range shot and finished with five points.

"I thought defensively, we played great," Cody Schilling said. "We got out on a few of their shooters, and we sagged off on (Virgil Baker) a little bit. Me and Trevor sagged off our two guys to help in the lane with the penetration. It was a total team effort. We played great defense, and the offense was finally clicking tonight."

Baker led all scorers with 34 points for MTS, but struggled from the field, shooting just 10-of-31, while scoring 12 points from the free throw line.

"We were going to give (Virgil Baker) the 3, and at the end, he started hitting a few, but the game plan was to let him shoot the 3 and don't let him penetrate," Schilling said. "He can get to the rack, and we had a few too many stupid reach-in calls, and he got way too many free throws."

Defensively, Weston DeBerg and Tom Nolte teamed up to shut down the high-scoring Baker.

"He's probably one of the quicker guys that I've ever guarded," DeBerg said. "He had an awesome crossover and could pull up in the lane, but he could shoot, too. It was a really tough assignment to start the game."

Schilling, who earlier in the week surpassed Isaiah Dahlman's career points record, finished his career with 3,428 points, including 31 points Saturday and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Panthers.

"To end my career on top, that's all you can ask for," Schilling said. "The scoring record was cool, but we came in here with a goal, and that was to win a state title. We did it, and it's just a dream come true. To do it two years in a row is crazy."

Ellsworth had the first opportunity to score in the game, but Trevor Gruis' shot was blocked by Kevin Noreen (17 points, 16 rebounds) as the game stayed scoreless in the first minute.

"The first time I got the ball, I guess I forgot that he was 6-8, but I found a different way to score," Trevor Gruis said. "They were good."

However, Adam Van Der Stoep hit a shot to give the Panthers a lead they would never give up.

After a free throw from DeBerg, Brandon Gruis hit a jump shot as Ellsworth opened up a 5-0 lead.

"I was in the right spot at the right time," Brandon Gruis said. "They found me, and there I was."

Baker converted a steal into a layup on the other end as it took the Wolves nearly four minutes to put points on the scoreboard.

"Virgil had a good game," Sherman said. "He had to carry us. The Noreen brothers had been sick all week, not to use that as an excuse, but Kevin Noreen especially was really dragging. He couldn't make a layup or make anything else, and it was a very tough game for him today."

However, following a shot from Schilling, the Panthers had opened up a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes.

"They came out in a diamond and one, and I don't think they've played a lot of that this season," Okeson said. "We found some holes in that right away. We got some defensive stops, and they took a couple of bad shots. We got that lead, and we played with it."

Baker hit a shot later in the first half to cut the Panther lead to four, 14-10, but Nolte (nine points, six rebounds) responded with a trey to start a 10-3 run to increase the lead to 24-13.

"Coach told me to go out there and stick some 3s, so I went out there and stuck some 3s," Nolte said.

Another trey from Nolte gave the Panthers their biggest lead of the first half, 27-15, but the Wolves cut the deficit to 10 points, 29-19 at the break.

"(Tom played) great minutes off the bench," Okeson said. "I had a feeling coming in that he was going to get some looks. He was ready and knocked them down."

Van Der Stoep (15 points) scored five points in the first three minutes as the Panthers used a 9-2 run to increase the lead to 17 points.

"I was expecting a dogfight," Schilling said. "There for a while it was, but it seemed like we kept going on runs, and we kind of put them away. They kept trying to fight back, but we had that 12 or 14 point lead, and it seemed like they couldn't get past that."

After a shot from Trevor Gruis (12 points, 11 rebounds) gave the Panthers a 19-point lead, 44-25, the Wolves' Kavarian Williams hit a trey, and Baker converted a layup to cut the deficit to 14 points.

From that point, the Panthers were able to use a 13-7 run to increase their lead to 20 points, 57-37, with less than six minutes remaining.

"We preached that they play a very aggressive style of defense, and we needed to attack them," Okeson said. "We attacked, and attacked and attacked, and in the second half, they broke down a few times, and we got easy layups."

As MTS began to foul in an attempt to catch the Panthers, the closest the Wolves came was 13 points, 59-46.

"We wanted to get it down under 10 or 12 and then have at least some kind of a chance if they don't make their free throws," Sherman said.

However, Trevor Gruis and Van Der Stoep then converted a pair of free throws as the game quickly became 16 points again.

"I struggled a little bit, but I got my free throws when I needed to," Van Der Stoep said. "I've been struggling with my free throws lately, but I came into this game thinking that if I'm going to shoot free throws, I have to make them."

Nolte (three-of-four from the line), Schilling and Van Der Stoep all made free throws down the stretch to ice the victory.

"I was a little disappointed in myself for missing that one," Nolte said, "but I had to do what I had to do."

A Schilling free throw gave Ellsworth its biggest lead of the night, 81-58, but the Wolves scored the last five points as the Panthers captured an 81-63 state championship victory.

"It's probably one of the most exciting times," DeBerg said. "Thank God we didn't have to come down to a final shot again; I might have had a heart attack. But being with these guys and winning another state championship with Cody, Brandon, Trevor and Adam and all my friends is the best time of my life."

A year after his older brother, Aaron, was named to the all-tournament team, Adam Van Der Stoep joined Schilling and Trevor Gruis on the all-tournament team for Ellsworth.

"I always talk to (Aaron) on the phone, and he said that I want to see you on the all-tournament team," Van Der Stoep said. "Just play your heart out and leave it all on the floor, and that's what I did."

But for Schilling and the rest of the seniors on this year's team, back-to-back championships created memories for a lifetime.

"There's just something about this team that's special," Schilling said. "You could tell at the beginning of the season it was going to be a special season. To end on top is the most you could ask for."

MTS 19 44 -- 63

Ellsworth 29 52 -- 81

MTS (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) Williams 1-1-0-5, Ky. Noreen 1-1-0-5, Ke. Noreen 1-3-8-17, Baker 2-8-12-34, Marshall 0-0-2-2. Totals 5-13-22-63.

Ellsworth (3FG-2FG-FT-TP) DeBerg 0-3-1-7, Schilling 0-9-13-31, Van Der Stoep 2-1-7-15, B. Gruis 0-3-1-7, T. Gruis 0-5-2-12, Nolte 2-0-3-9. Totals 4-21-27-81.