Patrick Buchanan knew he inherited a strong boys’ basketball team when he became coach of Mayer Lutheran. Strong team, at least, in parts of the game.

Buchannan researched the team’s players before taking the job. After he studied them, Buchannan didn’t know if the team could get stops on defense.

That all changed in his first season as coach. The Crusaders have held their opponents to less than 56 points per game after giving up over 65 points on average a season ago.

Improved defense has helped the team reach the Class 1A state tournament. The Crusaders will play Mahnomen/Waubun at 11 a.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals at Williams Arena.

The Crusaders, after defeating top-ranked Springfield in the section final, are the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

“That was our big turnaround this year,” junior Baden Noennig said in regards to defense. “It’s a big difference from last year. We definitely take pride in our defense at Mayer Lutheran.”

A key moment in the Crusaders’ season took place Jan. 9, when Mayer Lutheran lost to Minnesota River Conference opponent Jordan 88-77, dropping its record to 7-3 record. Despite the outcome, Buchanan said the way the Crusaders competed stood out.

“I started to tell them ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to state,’ ” Buchanan recalled saying after the game. “They started to really focus in on the defensive end more. From there, things started to roll.”

The Crusaders responded to the loss with a 20-game winning streak, which included a 54-46 victory over Jordan a month later in the second matchup between the two teams.

Jordan also is state tournament-bound, competing in Class 2A. The unseeded Hubmen play No. 1 seed Minnehaha Academy at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Target Center.

“We make each other stronger during the year and I think that helps us during playoff time,” Jordan coach Matt Urbanek said.

“We cheer for them and we’re glad that they are there and we know they do the same for us.”

Buchanan has emphasized defense this season, but it was last-second offense that clinched a state tournament berth.

Mayer Lutheran and Springfield were tied 75-75 in the Section 2 championship game last Friday.

With time running down, the Crusaders missed a shot that would have sent them to state. However, Noennig grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to senior Cole Hagen, whose three-point attempt beat the buzzer and went in, giving Mayer Lutheran a 78-75 victory.

“I got lucky enough to make the shot,” Hagen said. “It’s our senior year, this is the best team we’ve had in my three years since I’ve been here.”

Jack White is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.