BOYS BASKETBALL: Esko, Cloquet advance to semifinals
The top-seeded Esko Eskomos were without towering center Adam Trapp, but still won their Section 7AA first-round playoff game Tuesday, March 6.
The Eskomos (23-4) defeated eighth-seed Pierz (4-23) by 64-50 at Esko. Coach Mike Devney suggested that discretion was the better part of valor in not playing Trapp, who banged his knee on the floor in a late-season game at Two Harbors.
"He got undercut and slammed his knee into the wood, and he had a pretty deep bone bruise," Devney said. "He dressed for Pierz and we warmed him up, but decided not to play him."
In Trapp's absence, the Eskomos started a bit sluggish, trailing 9-7 late with six minutes to play in the first half before the team's press started to work. The Eskomos went on a 23-4 run to take a 30-13 advantage before Pierz scored the last five points of the half.
"They turned it over three times in a row and we hit three 3-pointers," Devney said. "But in the second half, they matched us basket-for-basket."
All-Polar League selection and league MVP Quinn Fischer had 24 points to lead Esko, which also got 14 points from Ryan Pantsar.
"We played OK," Devney said. "We advanced and we moved on, so that's the important thing."
Pierz stayed in the game through some annoyingly accurate long-range shooting.
"They hit some very long 3-pointers," Devney said. "Initially, they slowed the game down and in the second half, when we got the lead, they opened up."
Each team hit six 3-point shots on the night.
Esko now moves on to face Moose-Lake Willow River in the sub-section semifinals Saturday, March 10. The Rebels won at Pillager on Tuesday, March 6, to advance in a difficult 4-5 seed game.
"We played OK against them right before Christmas," Devney said. "They have athletes — they always have athletes — they have a very good young coach and they are playing better and better. They beat a fourth seed on the road and we absolutely have to respect that."
Devney said his team will need to up its game to win against the Rebels.
"We didn't have our A-game against Pierz," he said. "We have to be ready for every single opponent. If we're the No. 1 seed our opponent has nothing to lose. We have to play hard and hope to pull it out."
Meanwhile, the Cloquet Lumberjacks defeated a longtime nemesis Tuesday, March 6, in the Section 7AAA quarterfinals.
The Lumberjacks survived a 32-point night from Nate Seelye and defeated Grand Rapids 65-61 to move to Saturday's section semifinals against Princeton.
Cloquet won the game in a rather unaccustomed fashion — from beyond the 3-point stripe. Alex Leuzzo hit three 3-pointers as part of a night where the Lumberjacks connected eight times from beyond the 19-foot, 9-inch line.
"We shot really well — almost too well," coach Steve Battaglia said. "It got to the point where our shot selection suffered because we were bombing shots from places we don't usually shoot."
Cloquet also hit 23 free throws to eight for the Thunderhawks — a key in a four-point game.
"We hung on at the end of the game but we took care of the ball and hit our free throws," Battaglia said. "That's what we have to do."
The game was a bit odd in that of the 10 players on both teams who scored, seven of them scored in double figures. Grand Rapids got points from only three players — Seelye, John Sutherland and Blake Smith — and Cloquet got 21 points from Tim Pokornowski plus Bryce Turnbull's 14, Leuzzo's 12 and 11 from Tyler Moose. Cloquet led 38-23 at half.
The win also marked the third triumph for Cloquet over Grand Rapds this season.
"I don't remember a year where we beat them twice, much less three times in a season," Battaglia said. "So this feels good. They seem to end our season every year."
The three wins over the Thunderhawks came by a combined 24 points.
"We're similar teams," Battaglia said. "We just controlled the ball and kept it low-scoring. Rapids is the Duluth East of our section and went to state last year. So we're pleased to beat them."
The win puts Cloquet into the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friiday against Princeton. The game has been moved to Duluth East because Cloquet was scheduled to host the semifinals, but can't play on its home floor.
"We're an experienced team. We understand what's at stake," Battaglia said. "Princeton beat us by single digits in the season, but we know we can beat them if we play like we can."
Battaglia said playing smart will be the key.
"We can improve our shot selection," he said. "Sometimes we get a little loose in possession. We get a good shot, but it's not always a good shot for the player who's taking it. We have to realize that we don't have great basketball players, but we do have great athletes. We can win if we slow it down and play tight defense.
"It might be ugly, but we can win this game," he said.