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Boys basketball: Furious 2nd half rally lifts Trojans

WILLMAR — So it ends for one team.

But for another, it feels like a new beginning.

One of Willmar’s most exciting basketball teams prematurely crashed and burned in the Section 2AAA quarterfinals on Tuesday night to a Worthington Trojans team that caught fire in the second half.

The Cardinals bolted to a 49-37 lead by half but the underdog Trojans emerged in the second half to post 55 second-half points and boot the home team from the post-season, 92-88.

“We just haven’t been good at finishing before tonight,” said senior guard Spencer Grafing, whose 25 second-half points and clutch free throws were instrumental in the comeback. “We’ve lost a lot of games by less than 10 points.”

That included an 84-76 loss to the Cards on Jan. 25, at Worthington.

“If we took them lightly, we shouldn’t have,” said Willmar coach Steve Grove. “They challenged us the first time.”

Willmar was on fire the first half, especially Dylan Schueler, first off the bench all season. The senior forward had eight field goals, perhaps four of those from just inside the arc.

The Cards started fast in the second half, too, then tailed off as their shooting cooled, including missing two breakaway lay-ups. The Trojans tied it 60-60 at 10:45 on a pair of free throws by Marcus Potter and got their first lead at 9:30, 65-64, on a 3-pointer by Grafing who finished with 30 points.

Worthington went up 78-72 on a three-point play by Potter which he followed with two free throws at 2:38.

Willmar fired back. Tyler Stegeman and Kyler Johnson each hit a three and Willmar got within a basket of the lead. But 6-foot-4 forward Will Mulder got a piece of Stegeman’s corner shot with 15 seconds left for the tie and Worthington rebounded.

Grafing kept the Trojans in front with his free throw accuracy, making 11 of 12, most of those late in the second half.

Potter scored 23. Mulder added 12 points and Carter Lindner 11, two of the team’s eight seniors.

The 92 points are, by far, the most allowed by Willmar in regulation this year.

Worthington entered the game with an unimpressive 8-14 record. But head coach Jared Keaveny hinted that he could see something good coming.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few days. We’re only a few plays away in some of those losses,” explained the first-year coach after Tuesday’s shocker.

“I think it’s huge (for the team). It’s big for our confidence. They just stepped it up. That’s what you gotta do in the playoffs — just grind it out.”

Keaveny said patience on offense, and their ability to force Willmar into playing defense, helped the Trojans win. “We also did a good job of shutting down that (Willmar) fast break,” he said.

Lindner took three charges in the contest. Potter had six assists, six rebounds and three steals. Will Dudley had seven rebounds and three steals.

Johnson hit for 25 points, Stegeman had 19, Schueler 17, Adam Nibaur 12 and Alex Grove 10 for the Cardinals but assist (6) and rebound (7) leader Joel Carter was held to a point.

The Trojans play Mankato West (82-47 winners over New Ulm) at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at Taylor Center in Mankato.

Willmar ends up 18-8, up from 13-14 a year ago and matching the 2011-12 win total.

Worthington 37 92

Willmar 49 88

WORTHINGTON – 25-58 FG (8-17 3-pt); 28-39 FT; 33 rebounds; 16 fouls … Scoring: Spencer Grafing 30, Marcus Potter 23, Will Mulder 12, Carter Lindner 11, Oliver Wolyniec 8, Will Dudley 6, Jake Weg 2 … 3-point shots: Grafing 5-7, Potter 1-3, Mulder 12, Lindner 1-3 … Rebound leaders: Potter 5, Dudley 8, Lindner 5, Mulder 5 … Assist leaders: Potter 7 … Steal leaders: Lindner 3, Potter 2… Blocks: Muldner 1

WILLMAR – 34-65 FG (8-24 3-pt); 12-21 FT; 31 rebounds; 26 fouls … Scoring: Kyler Johnson 25, Tyler Stegeman 19, Dylan Schueler 17, Adam Nibaur 12, Austin Grove 10, Brady Damhof 3, Joel Carter 1, Josh Holtz 1… 3-point shots: Johnson 4-8, Stegeman 0-9 … Rebound leaders: Johnson 4, Schueler 5, Nibaur 9, Grove 7, Carter 11 … Assist leaders: Johnson 3, Nibaur 3, Carter 6 … Steal leaders: Stegeman 3 … Blocks: Johnson 2, Carter 2

(Doug Wolter, Daily Globe sports editor, contributed to this story)