Near-perfect game for Cloquet not enough to top Rapids for titleDULUTH — Steve Battaglia said his Cloquet boys basketball team had to play a perfect game if they wanted to knock off Grand Rapids en route to their first state tournament in a decade.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
DULUTH — Steve Battaglia said his Cloquet boys basketball team had to play a perfect game if they wanted to knock off Grand Rapids en route to their first state tournament in a decade.
And they almost did.
The Lumberjacks let their first half lead slowly slip away in a 62-56 loss to the Thunderhawks in Tuesday night’s Section 7AAA championship game at Duluth East High School.
“We played as well as we could have played,” said Battaglia. “To beat that team, you have to get a couple bounces, get some calls and everything just has to go perfectly. We had our chances, and almost pulled it off.”
The No. 4 state-ranked Thunderhawks (27-2) were the clear favorite coming into title affair, having swept the season series against the ‘Jacks, including a 53-point drubbing of Cloquet (18-11) just two weeks ago.
On Tuesday, thanks to a new triangle-and-two defense, Cloquet darted off to a 13-6 lead from the opening tip. Even after a 9-0 run by the Thunderhawks to grab their first lead, Cloquet answered late in the frame and headed to the locker rooms with seven-point halftime lead of 30-23.
The crowd was stunned.
“We really started quick tonight,” said Battaglia. “We knew we couldn’t come out and get behind, because that’s what happened up there, and we all know how that went. The boys really executed the game plan to perfection.”
Following recess, Grand Rapids and Cloquet continued to exchange buckets in the contest that included eight lead changes and five ties. Throughout the evening neither club led by more than nine.
After a timeout around the five-minute mark, the Thunderhawks, leading by one at the time, held the ball at half court for nearly three minutes while Cloquet sat in their zone defense, watching the time tick off the clock.
“They played into our favor,” said Battaglia. “We wanted to cut a five-minute game in half. If we had to do it again, we might have taken it down another minute. We don’t have any regrets.”
Moments later, Cloquet switched to man-to-man, as Grand Rapids’ senior Kevin Rabbers nailed a bucket down low to increase their lead to three and the team eventually came away with a 62-56 final score.
“Sometimes that’s just the way it goes,” said Battaglia. “We simply just got beat by a better team tonight.”
The Thunderhawks have now won three straight section titles, knocking out the ‘Jacks each time on the way to state.
Grand Rapids was paced by sophomore reserve Austin Pohlen’s 18 points, all from behind the arc, while Rabbers and senior point guard Michael Johnson had 15 and 10, respectively.
“Pohlen was the X factor,” said Battaglia. “He stepped up, banged some threes and played well. He was the one who beat us tonight.”
Cloquet’s 6-foot-10 center Chad Calcaterra led the ‘Jacks with a game-best 27 in the defeat.
Having been absent from the state tournament since 2000, Cloquet players fell to the floor after the final buzzer, knowing how close they were to fulfilling their dreams.
“I told the kids that they could sleep well tonight because they left it all on the floor and played as perfect as this team could play,” Battaglia said. “If we keep getting here, we’re bound to get them one of these days. And tonight we were doggone close.”