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PREP BASKETBAL: Eagles back in state finals

Joe Brown/Red Wing Republican Eagle Southwest Minnesota Christian's Dominic Nibbelink (23) goes up for a shot against a pair of Upsala defenders during the first half of Friday's Class 1A semifinal game at the Target Center.1 / 3
Joe Brown/Red Wing Republican Eagle Southwest Minnesota Christian's Clayton Huisken (5) threads a pass through the Upsala defense into the post during the first half of Friday's Class 1A semifinal game at the Target Center.2 / 3
Joe Brown/Red Wing Republican Eagle Southwest Minnesota Christian's Klint Knutson (middle) races past a pair of Upsala players for a loose ball during the first half of Friday's Class 1A semifinal game at the Target Center.3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS -- Thanks to a typical, hustling help and recover man-to-man defensive scheme -- along with a sparkling 33-point performance from 6-5 junior center Leighton Sampson -- Southwest Minnesota Christian High School is back in the Minnesota State High School League's (MSHSL) Class A boys' basketball state championship game.

Playing at Target Center Friday afternoon, the tight-knit Eagles vaulted to an early 25-9 lead on undefeated Upsala and utilized a well-poised 18-9 run over a span of seven minutes and 22 seconds of the second half to hold off the Cardinals and earn a hard-fought 71-62 victory, advancing the Red Rock Conference and Section 3A champions to today's finals.

"We're just tickled pink to be playing in the state championship again," exclaimed head coach Jamie Pap in a post-game interview with several reporters. "We came out with great energy to start the game and weathered through a strong comeback by a very good Upsala team to win a game, which had lots of good plays by both teams."

The Eagles (29-1) will play Maranatha Christian Academy (of Brooklyn Park) for the Class A state title at noon today at Target Center.

MCA, the state's top-ranked Class A team (by Minnesota Basketball News), was the state tournament's No. 1 seed and advanced to the championship game with a 61-46 victory over perennial power Rushford-Peterson in Friday's first semifinal game. The Mustangs (31-1) defeated Section 2A champion Mountain Lake Area 61-44 in Thursday's quarterfinals.

"Maranatha Christian has a very good team," noted Southwest assistant coach John Top. "We're going to need to figure out a way to slow down their athleticism."

Southwest Christian, which is on a 25-game winning streak, snapped Section 5A Upsala's 31-game win streak with Friday's effort, drawing a heap of praise from Cardinals' head coach Vern Capelle.

"We haven't faced a defense as good as Southwest's all season," said Capelle about the Eagles' effort. "Our kids played hard and made lots of moves to the basket, which we often score with. But Southwest's players seemed to be in the right place at the right time, stopping our drives and contesting our outside shots."

The Cardinals sport an impressive record of 75-14 over the past three seasons (25-4 in their state tournament appearance two years ago) and will tangle with Section 1A champion Rushford-Peterson in today's third-place game (10 a.m.) at Concordia University's Gangelhoff Center in St. Paul.

Sampson's 33-points, 12 rebounds leads Eagles back to title game

Sampson, who scored 15 points in the first half of Southwest's 68-38 quarterfinal victory over Walker-Hackensack-Akeley at Williams Arena Thursday, came up with the biggest game of his varsity career Friday.

Just as he did on Thursday, Sampson scored a pair of key baskets late in the first half and went into the break with 14 points, six rebounds and a pair of timely shot blocks.

Thursday, the Eagles had a big lead at intermission and Sampson only scored two points in the second half, finishing with 17.

Friday, Southwest was challenged throughout an action-packed second half and the first-year varsity starter responded with an awesome performance after intermission.

In the second half, Sampson scored 19 more points, claimed six more rebounds and blocked another shot, finishing the game with a trio of blocks, 12 rebounds (five offensive, seven defensive) and a career-high 33 points, making 14-of-16 field goal attempts and five-of-eight free throws.

"We didn't have an answer for him," Capelle said. "Avery (Smieja) is a real good post defender and has stopped lots of players inside. But (today), he needed help and we had to make defensive adjustments to try to control Sampson, who had a very big game for Southwest."

Among Sampson's impressive plays was a basket off a strong spin move following an offensive rebound -- off a missed SWC free throw -- with 2:43 left in the game, which built the Eagles' lead to 55-46.

"That was huge," declared Pap. "Leighton is extremely strong and we want him to attack the offensive glass. He really had it going today."

Thirty-nine seconds later, Sampson took a pass from Eric Talsma (seven points, 10 rebounds) and scored inside again, giving SWC a 57-49 edge.

Showing his versatility, Sampson dribbled the ball up the court against Upsala's pressuring defense and was fouled at the 1:41 mark. He sank two free throws and SWC's lead was 59-49.

After Upsala's Nick Frieler knocked down his third 3-pointer of the second half -- slicing the lead to 59-52 with 1:28 on the clock -- Sampson drove hard to the hoop and converted a three-point play and the Eagles were back up 10 just seven seconds later.

Sampson's nine points during that span of 82 seconds helped keep the Eagles in the lead against a Cardinals' squad which had not lost a game all season and averaged 81 points per game, while allowing 53.4 -- an average winning margin of 27.6 points per contest.

Upsala scored over 100 points in three games this season and topped the 90-point mark a total of nine times. The Cardinals' closest game was a 71-67 win over Class AAA Little Falls in late December.

Eagles hit key free throws down the stretch to keep lead

Upsala's high-scoring junior guard Christian Pekarek was fouled eight seconds later and sank two free throws, bringing the Cardinals to within eight (62-54) with 1:13 to go.

SWC's Klint Knutson was fouled immediately on the inbounds pass and put the Eagles back up 10 by netting a pair from the line.

"We made some key free throws late in the game," praised Pap. "That was really important, because Upsala was scoring almost every time down the floor during those last two minutes."

Frieler (12 points) drained another 3-pointer and with a minute remaining, the score was 64-57.

Thirteen seconds later, Knutson (12 points, five assists, three steals) made a free throw, but missed the second.

In typical, Eagles' fashion, Talsma corralled the rebound off the miss and got the ball back to Knutson, who was fouled again. This time, Klint made them both and with 42 seconds to play, the Eagles held a 10-point lead again, 67-57.

Pekarek (team-high 22 points, 13-of-14 at the line) netted his only 3-pointer of the game with 33 seconds left, closing the margin back to seven (67-60) as Capelle called his final timeout.

Dominic Nibbelink (10 points, three assists, two steals) effectively sealed the deal for the Eagles by netting four-of-four free throws in the closing seconds, offsetting a hoop at the buzzer by Upsala's Smieja (10 points, eight rebounds) off a penetrating assist from Matt Abeler.

All five starters score in early surge

Neither team scored in the game's first minute, but a strong putback by Sampson, a driving layup by Knutson and a rebound basket by Talsma gave the Eagles a quick 6-0 lead at the 16:37 mark of the first half.

Eric Frieler nailed a 3-pointer for the Cardinals 11 seconds later, but Upsala did not score again until Pekarek hit a 15-foot jumper with 11:47 left in the half.

Meanwhile, the Eagles earned a 14-3 lead as Nibbelink scored on a drive, Talsma passed to Sampson for a basket, Knutson fed Sampson for a hoop and Talsma sank a pair of free throws after receiving a dandy bounce pass from Clayton Huisken.

Nate Pfeifle scored on a strong drive, becoming the fifth Eagle starter to score and Knutson followed with a drive and passed to Pfeifle for a 3-pointer, lifting SWC to a 21-7 advantage with 9:49 showing on the first-half clock.

Sampson scored twice in a row down low (on assists from Nibbelink and Huisken, respectively), giving the Eagles their largest lead of the game, 25-9, with 7:30 to play prior to intermission.

Cardinals rally with 16-0 run, tie game

The Eagles then went nearly five minutes without scoring again and a 16-0 run by the Cardinals -- including 10-of-10 shooting at the free throw line (six by Pekarek, four by Smieja) -- tied the score at 25-all with 3:03 left. A pull-up jumper off a drive by Garrett Wolf capped the Cardinals' surge.

"We've got to quit doing that," Pap said about the five-minute scoring drought. "We had some turnovers, missed some shots and had too many fouls during that stretch. The kids kept their poise and we responded with a good finish to the first half."

Sampson took a pass from Pfeifle and scored on the left block at the 2:41 mark to give the Eagles' their first points in a span of four minutes and 49 seconds.

After a travel call on the Cardinals, Pfeifle dished inside to Sampson again, who passed over the top to Nibbelink (who missed the shot). Sampson, however, scored on the offensive rebound and the Eagles had a four-point lead.

Nibbelink gave SWC a five-point edge at the 1:19 mark with a high-arching 3-pointer and a shot block by Sampson helped the Eagles maintain a 32-29 lead at the break.

Second half action is close before Eagles pull away in final 3:00

Like the first half, neither team scored for more than a minute of the second half.

Nibbelink's penetrating dish-off to Sampson gave the Eagles a five-point lead (34-29) at the 16:41 mark and both teams played outstanding defense over the next several minutes.

The Eagles always had the lead -- but not by much.

With 14:49 left, SWC had a 34-32 edge. After scoring 25 points in the game's first 10:29, the Eagles had netted only nine tallies in the next 10:42.

A basket by Talsma was answered by Nick Frieler's second trey of the half and the Cardinals were within one, 36-35.

Talsma later drew a charge, Knutson made a free throw and Pfeifle scored on a drive, lifting the Eagles up 39-35.

But, then a series of calls went against Southwest as two interior Eagles' baskets were disallowed (charges called) and Pekarek netted a pair of free throws, bringing Upsala within two (39-37) with 9:39 to play.

Knutson scored after rebounding his own missed shot and then passed to Sampson for a basket, increasing the Eagles' edge to 43-37 at the 8:17 mark.

Over the next two minutes, Sampson and Talsma each made one-of-two free throws and Knutson drew a key charge as Southwest held a 45-40 advantage with 6:32 remaining.

Pekarek's driving jumper closed the gap to three, but the Eagles went up six on a three-point play by Sampson, after scoring on an offensive rebound.

Upsala's Dylan Zimmerman matched that play on the other end 27 seconds later and with 5:12 left, it was 48-45.

Southwest took a five-point lead at the 4:50 mark when Sampson scored inside off a dandy direct pass from the top by Knutson.

After coming up with a key steal, Talsma was fouled and drained two free throws, building the advantage to seven.

Wolf and Nibbelink then exchanged solo free throws before Sampson's impressive move after an offensive rebound put the Eagles up by nine (55-46) with 2:43 to play, setting up the final action.

Eagles are repeat finalists, Section 3A is back in title game for 14th time in 17 tournaments

For Southwest, playing in today's championship game will be a repeat from last year when the Eagles battled undefeated Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in a closely-contested clash before the Jaguars emerged with a 54-45 victory.

"This time, of course, we want to win," declared Pap, who played for the Eagles when Southwest won the first of its four back-to-back state championships from 1999-2002.

Amazingly, beginning with Wabasso's runner-up finish in 1997, the Section 3 champion has advanced to the state finals 14 times in the 17 years since the MSHSL went to four classes.

This will be the sixth time (in the championship game) for the Southwest, while Ellsworth (2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) played in five finals and Russell-Tyler-Ruthton won back-to-back state titles in 2004 and 2005. Ellsworth won championships in 2007 and 2008.

Only three times -- in 1998, 2010 and 2011 -- has the Section 3 entrant not made it to the finals. Ellsworth (2010) and MACCRAY (2011) each claimed third-place at the tournament, as the overall state-tournament record of Section 3A teams is an incredible 40-8.

The section has eight state titles, five runner-ups and pair of thirds in the previous 16 tournaments.

"That shows how strong our section and our corner of the state is," summed up Pap. "Playing our schedule has helped prepare us for the competition we face here."



UPSALA (31-1): Wolf 2 2-4 6; Smieja 2 6-6 10; E. Frieler 1 0-0 3; N. Frieler 4 0-0 12; Pekarek 4 13-14 22; Zimmerman 4 1-1 9. Totals: 17 22-25 62.

SOUTHWEST CHRISTIAN (29-1): Talsma 1 5-6 7; Sampson 14 5-8 33; Pfeifle 4 0-0 9; Knutson 3 6-10 12; Nibbelink 2 5-8 10. Totals: 24 21-32 71.

Upsala 29 33 -- 62

Southwest Christian 32 33 -- 71

3-Point Goals: Upsala 6 (E. Frieler, N. Frieler 4, Pekarek); SWC 2 (Pfiefle, Nibbelink). Rebounds: Upsala 26 (Wolf 4, Smieja 8, N. Frieler 2, Pekarek 4, Nelson 2, Abeler, Zimmerman 5); SWC 34 (Talsma 10, Sampson 12, Pfeifle 2, Knutson 5, Nibbelink 2, Vander Veen). Total Fouls (Fouled Out): Upsala 24 (Pekarek); SWC 19 (none). Technical Fouls: None. Assists: Upsala 4 (E. Frieler 2, Pekarek, Abeler); SWC 10 (Talsma, Pfeifle 2, Knutson 5, Nibbelink, Huisken). Steals: Upsala 7 (Wolf, Smeija, E. Frieler 3, Pekarek 2); SWC 7 (Talsma, Knutson 3, Nibbelink 2, Huisken). Blocked Shots: Upsala 2 (Smieja, Pekarek); SWC 4 (Sampson 3, Pfeifle). Turnovers: Upsala 18, SWC 19.