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'Jacks outscore Tigers, march onto final

Cloquet's Alex Leuzzo drives to the basket past Princeton's Tate Laabs for a basket during the Section 7AAA semifinal game Thursday, March 8, at Duluth East High School. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 4
Cloquet's Mitchell Gerlach scores a basket while being fouled by Princeton's Calvin Peterson during the Section 7AAA semifinal game. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 4
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When it comes to sports, there's an old saying: "It's not how you start; it's how you finish."

Just ask Steve Battaglia.

Battaglia watched his Cloquet boys basketball team begin the Thursday, March 8, Section 7AAA semifinal against Princeton down 9-0 in the opening 1:41, yet, resiliently storm back for 54 second-half points en route to an exhilarating 86-83 victory before a wild, purple-clad crowd at Duluth East High School.

In fact, the finals-clinching contest was so fast-paced that some statisticians, members of the media and fans, couldn't keep up. All in all, the fourth-seeded Lumberjacks and top-ranked Tigers combined to make 61 shots on 121 attempts, including 16 3-pointers, equaling 169 points — in 36 minutes.

"I told the guys in the locker room that we had no chance of winning if this thing was in the 80s," Battaglia admitted with a laugh afterward. "They let me know about that right away."

For Cloquet (17-11), who now faces sixth-seeded Hermantown (13-15) in the final Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m., again at Duluth East, the comeback win was both electrifying and vengeful.

You see, the Lumberjacks were playing football this past fall until after Thanksgiving, running all the way to the Prep Bowl. Come Dec. 15, when Cloquet traveled to Princeton, their 76-67 loss to the Tigers wasn't surprising, as the boys in purple and white were still searching for their basketball legs.

"They definitely knocked off some of that football rust," Princeton coach Brett Cloutier said. "It's a tough one to swallow, but hats off to (Cloquet). They're a good team, they played well and they have a good shot at winning this section."

If that's the case, it would be the first state tournament trip for Battaglia and the Lumberjacks since 2014. But Battaglia, who also helped qualify Cloquet for state as a player in 1997 and 1998, said they aren't looking past the arch-rival Hawks.

"They just assume to take our head off," said Battaglia about Hermantown, a team that the Lumberjacks have beaten twice this winter, yet the Hawks have already upset second-seeded Hibbing. "We have our hands full. By any stretch of the imagination, this is not going to be a walk in the park."

Nor was it last week. As noted about their tortoise-like start, Cloquet trailed by that nine-point deficit at halftime, 41-32. Yet, behind the leadership of their 12-state championship-laden football players, the Lumberjacks kept clawing away.

In fact, a technical foul by Battaglia just 2:07 into the second half may have been the secret weapon to fire up his squad. Following the call, Cloquet spurted on an 8-0 run.

The coach was asked if it was a strategic move afterward.

"No," said Battaglia with a chuckle. "I'm not that smart."

Rather, he indicated the toughness of his boys. Not surprisingly, nearly 70 percent of whom played football for coach Tom Lenarz, also in the bleachers supporting last week.

It was senior Tim Pokornowski — a Minnesota-Duluth football signee — who made a steal and shoveled it up to junior Alex Leuzzo, another football star, whose layup finally tied it at 59-59 with 11 minutes to play. Not long after, senior Spencer Wehr — bound for Bemidji State — scored a layup in transition to give Cloquet their first advantage at 74-72.

Several of the game's five lead changes and two ties ensued, but a missed shot off the back of the rim by Tiger Adam Williams was corralled by Cloquet in the waning seconds. Leuzzo, who had a career-high 26 points — with 21 in a ridiculous second half — hit a late free throw to seal it.

Wehr and Pokornowski had 24 and 19 points, as Tigers' Williams and James Flicek totaled 26 and 20, respectively.

"We're super-pumped," said Leuzzo of the upset, letting out a two-handed fist flex after the final buzzer. "We want to do exactly what we did for football — make it to state."

"That'd be something pretty special," added Wehr, who along with his teammates, are nothing short of competitive.

"We know what tight games feel like," Wehr said.

"They played two games at U.S. Bank Stadium, so I don't think Duluth East is a big stage for them," Cloutier added.