“We’re alive. We’ve got work to do.”
So went coach Jay Wendland’s assessment of St. Croix Lutheran’s 37-35 victory against Esko in the Class 2A basketball state tournament quarterfinals Wednesday at the Target Center.
The top seed Crusaders (29-2) held off a rally by defending champion Esko in the final 40 seconds. The Eskomos (23-8) held possession the entire time but couldn’t score.
“It all starts with our mental toughness,” said Ade Lamu, a junior guard for St. Croix Lutheran, located in West St. Paul. “I think we did a good job with that. We didn’t lose our composure or get angry.”
St. Croix Lutheran’s halftime lead of 10-7 was enough to drive everyone crazy.
The Crusaders shot just 19 percent, slightly better than Esko’s 16 percent. The teams combined to go 7-for-41 from the field, combining for a score fans could count with their fingers.
“There was a little bit of a lid on that basket in the first half,” Wendland said. His Crusaders were struggling to play a desired up-tempo pace. Players also settled for outside shots that wouldn’t fall.
Esko, meanwhile, labored with the Crusaders’ bruising style.
“It was just so physical,” Eskomos coach Mike Devney said. “To be 10-7 with the skill level both teams have?”
With less than 10 minutes to go, St. Croix Lutheran built a 28-19 lead and appeared in control.
“We said in the huddle, ‘You’ve got to step up and play like men right now,’ ” Devney said.
Esko’s players clawed back to a four-point deficit. But the Crusaders never surrendered their lead.
“Do we need to tighten some things up?” Wendland said. “Definitely. But you’ll take a win any way you can get it at the state tournament.”
DAVID LA VAQUE
Caledonia 72, Annandale 66: The Warriors returned to the semifinals by avenging a five-point loss from last year’s semifinal.
Caledonia overcame a slow start, shooting 37.1 percent in the first half, by producing 31 points off turnovers and second-chance opportunities. The Warriors had a 43-34 edge on the glass with 17 offensive rebounds.
“They were eating glass today,” Caledonia head coach Josh Diersen said. “It was fun to watch guys rebound like that because they let us play. That was perfect.”
The Warriors had four players in doubles figures, led by senior forward Justin Burg with 18 points, nine rebounds and his first high school dunk.
“I just took off from the free throw line thinking I could do it, and it just happened,” Burg said.
Senior guard Kyle Sorenson contributed 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Senior forward Chase Knickerbocker scored a game-high 24 points for the Cardinals on 8-for-21 shooting.
Melrose 81, Redwood Valley 66: Target Center’s lights were brighter and its rims less forgiving than Melrose guard Dillon Haider expected. No matter.
He fueled the fourth-seeded Dutchmen’s rout of No. 5 seed Redwood Valley thanks to hot first-half shooting. Haider, a sophomore, had 12 points before halftime — nine of them on three-pointers.
“Once I make my first shot, I get into the flow really easily,” Haider said. “I love big games.”
The Dutchmen (27-5), making their first return to state since winning the 1974 title, went 7-for-12 from the three-point arc in the first half.
Tyler Braegelmann led Melrose with 17 points.
Redwood Valley (23-7) got 31 points from Sam Pendleton.
DAVID LA VAQUE
Maple River 78, Breckenridge 72: Maple River overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to defeat Breckenridge.
Maple River shot 29.6 percent in the first half but made 13 of 24 shots in the second half.
“We just couldn’t make anything [in the first half],” said senior center Grant Sonnek, who finished with 16 points and six rebounds. “We were just fading away, the ball wasn’t going in, but we just had to keep shooting.”
Maple River controlled the game for the final 12 minutes after a 12-3 run gave the Eagles their first double-digit lead.
Eagles sophomore guard Jeff Lewis had a game high 25 points. Junior guard Ashton Hegge led the Cowboys with 17 points.