MINNEAPOLIS - Leading up to the state tournament, Esko tried to simulate the suffocating defense of Minneapolis North by putting seven or eight junior varsity players on the court at once.
The Eskomos learned a hard lesson Wednesday night at Williams Arena - you really can’t replicate the Polars’ relentlessness, no matter how many bodies are at your disposal.
That’s because, as Esko junior Payton Wefel noted: “It’s still not Minneapolis North.”
The second-seeded Polars forced 23 turnovers en route to a 61-53 win in a back-and-forth Class AA quarterfinal that knocked the feisty Eskomos into the consolation round.
Prepare as the Eskomos did after winning their sixth Section 7AA title in seven years, Minneapolis North is so quick, so in-your-face aggressive, that until the ball goes up it’s hard to fully appreciate the intensity of it all. The Polars (22-9) scored 25 fast-break points, compared to Esko’s two.
“It’s one thing to prepare for it, but then you actually see it and it does wear on you a little bit,” Eskomos coach Derek Anderson said.
Still, there was unseeded Esko (21-10), undeterred by the challenge and using an 11-1 run to build a 17-9 lead before Minneapolis North started clogging up passing lanes and turning steals into uncontested layups. The Polars produced three of their 18 steals on successive Esko possessions, sprinting away for transition baskets at the other end to make it 17-15.
“Eventually, we want to wear ’em down and wear ’em out,” Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie said. “We want them to know they’re in for a battle.”
Corey Kauma’s high-arcing 3-pointer put the Eskomos in front 28-22, but Minneapolis North closed the first half on an 8-2 spurt to forge a 30-30 tie at the break.
Esko’s steely senior point guard, Camden Berger, ran into foul trouble early, which amplified the Polars’ harassing defense. Berger was hardly fazed by it, but with him on the bench the Eskomos struggled to get into their offensive sets.
“It was very difficult when he went out,” Anderson said. “He’s the floor general. He leads us. Early on, I think you saw him set the tone.”
Berger picked up his fourth foul with 12:04 remaining in the second half. He tweaked his left knee five minutes later, returned with 4:49 to go, then promptly got whistled for a charge and foul number five.
“It was really frustrating,” said Berger, who didn’t mask his displeasure at many of the calls. “I want to be out there helping my teammates as much as I can.”
Berger totaled 12 points.
In his absence, and despite a disjointed offense, Wefel kept Esko in it. The lanky sharpshooter totaled 11 of his team-high 16 points in the second half. On Tuesday, Wefel admitted shooting at cavernous Williams Arena can be tricky. But all it takes is one to fall.
“I saw one go in, then I was used to it,” Wefel said.
A pair of free throws from Esko sophomore Riley Fischer led to a 53-53 deadlock with less than three minutes to play. And the Eskomos twice had the ball inside the final minute trailing by three, but they couldn’t come up with one last big shot against an opponent that many expected to waltz into the semifinals and, ultimately, Saturday’s championship game opposite top-seeded Minnehaha Academy.
“I don’t think there’s a moment that’s too big for them,” Anderson said of the Eskomos. “We’ve played with a chip on our shoulder all year.”
The Polars won despite making only 12 of 27 free-throw attempts. And they knocked down just one 3 vs. the Eskomos’ seven. But their athleticism, highlighted by 6-foot-7 sophomore Davon Townley Jr., was more than enough to offset those shortcomings. Townley, who has an explosive first step, finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds while shooting just 2-for-11 from the line.
North’s Willie Wilson, who ended the game emphatically with a breakaway dunk, paced all scorers with 17 points.
The Polars, champs of Class A in 2016 and 2017, hook up with third-seeded Perham in a Friday semifinal. Esko, meanwhile, faces unseeded Redwood Valley at 8 p.m. today on the Concordia-St. Paul campus.Esko 30-23-53
Minneapolis North 30-31-61
Esko - Jon Stodola 2, Payton Wefel 16, Riley Fischer 9, Trevor Spindler 7, Camden Berger 12, James Legarde 4, Corey Kauma 3. Totals 20 6-8 53.
3-point goals - Wefel 4, Fischer, Spindler, Kauma.
Minneapolis North - Omar Brown 6, Eli Campbell 5, Nasir El-Amin 14, Willie Wilson 17, Davon Townley Jr. 14, Clifford Brown III 3, Josh Hodges 2. Totals 24 12-27 61.
3-point goals - Brown.