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Ogichidaag advance to section semifinals with win over South Ridge

South Ridge senior Zach Johnson sets up a play against Fond du Lac Ojibwe senior Lester Williamson and the Ogichidaag in the Section 7A quarterfinals Saturday. Fond du Lac Ojibwe defeated South Ridge 83-67 to advance to the semifinals against Mountain Iron-Buhl at 5:45 p.m. Thursday, March 3, in Hibbing. Photo courtesy of Northland Sports Online

At times this season, the Section 7A boys basketball semifinals seemed a long way away to Fond du Lac Ojibwe coach Earl Otis.

The team was occasionally reduced to as few as six players due to injuries and other team issues, and several of those players were freshmen or younger.

“We play three seniors and start two freshmen,” Otis said, “so when we have one guy off the bench and he’s an eighth-grader, sometimes it gets a little tricky.”

That said, the Ogichidaag (14-13) have reached Thursday’s Section 7A semifinals against Mountain Iron-Buhl (22-6) — and defeated the subsection’s top seed, South Ridge, 83-67 on Saturday night, to get there.

“This team has worked their tails off,” Otis said. “And we played really well against South Ridge.”

The Ogichidaag led 36-32 at halftime and scored 47 points in the second half, with only eight coming from leading scorers Lester Williamson and Justin Brown. The rest came from a talented — and growing — supporting cast. Freshman Evan Butcher scored 22 points to lead Fond du Lac and the floor for the night.

Williamson is a welcome re-addition to the lineup, after suffering a concussion in an 89-70 loss at Cass Lake Feb. 1. He just passed concussion protocol this week and his presence was felt on the floor.

“He is an important player for us,” Otis said. “We have a fair bit of talent on the team but we do need him.”

Between Williamson and Brown — who at 6’7” is the tallest player in the section — the Ogichidaag have a formidable 1-2 punch, but it’s the young players who really get Otis going.

“I’m teaching the game while they’re playing it, and the freshmen are very good and talented players,” he said. “We have some height but there are certain things we can’t do as well yet because these players are still learning.”

One of those things is run a full-court trap or press system.

“Those are hard things to teach and you have to play under control,” Otis said. “We have played mostly a half-court man-to-man defense but we do have some plans for Mountain Iron-Buhl that we might try.”

The usual Fond du Lac style — a high-tempo, run-and-gun style — has been toned down a bit this season due to the youth of the team members, as well as their numbers.

“You can’t run all over the floor and press and trap when you only have six players in uniform,” he said. “We had problems in some games because the kids just simply got tired.”

The numbers issues also meant that fouls were extremely important.

“You can’t get guys in foul trouble either when you’re playing with six,” he said. “There’s not much of a rotation to speak of but now we can go 9-10 players deep and rest players in the playoffs.”

That might bode well for Fond du Lac, which beat MIB 85-82 in overtime Jan. 12.

“We have seen them before and the kids know they can beat them,” Otis said.

The belief the players feel is now boosted by several successful seasons at the school, so an expectation of success is being built.

“The tradition is good,” Otis said. “The seniors now looked up to the players who came before them and these freshmen look up to the seniors we have. The team is in good shape for the future.”

But it is the present that is of interest to Otis and his players.

“We hoped we would be where we are now,” he said, “even though some times this season it has been hard to see it coming. The players came together very well.”

Fond du Lac will play MIB at 5:45 p.m. today, Thursday, March 3, at Hibbing Memorial Arena. The winner of that game will play in the Section 7A championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 5, also at Hibbing Memorial.