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Boys basketball: Top-ranked Tigers oust Lumberjacks in 7AAA semifinal

Cloquet's Riley Leslie shoots a 3-pointer during the Section 7AAA semifinal versus Princeton on Friday, March 8. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 4
Cloquet's Dylan Heehn shoots a reverse layup in front of Princeton's Adam Williams during the Section 7AAA semifinal game at Duluth East. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 4
Cloquet's Adam Schneider shoots a jumper over Princeton's James Flicek during the Friday, March 8, Section 7AAA semifinal at Duluth East. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 4
Cloquet's Markus Pokornowski shoots a 3-pointer during the Section 7AAA semifinal game versus Princeton at Duluth East. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal4 / 4

A year ago, the fourth-seeded Cloquet boys basketball team took on the meaning of March when upsetting top-ranked Princeton in a postseason shocker.

Last week, those same-seeded Lumberjacks looked to tame the No. 1 Tigers again — in the same week, same round and same gym.

Just not the same results.

Reilly O'Neil scored 25 points, including the 1,000th of his career, and John Stimmler added 20 as Princeton powered past Cloquet 88-70 in a Section 7AAA semifinal Friday, March 8, at Duluth East.

"We beat them last year, and we tried again this year," said Cloquet senior Riley Leslie, "but they were just too much for us."

For the Tigers (25-3), that's been the case for many of their opponents this winter, as Princeton plays as fast and efficient as any. Averaging 84.6 points per game, the Tigers are tops in all of Class AAA, running, shooting and scoring at a blazing pace.

"The more shots you get, the more points you score and the happier everyone seems to be," said Princeton coach Brett Cloutier, now in his sixth season adapting their uptempo style. "We've installed that culture. We like to get up and down the court and score some points."

Such was the scene Friday when the Tigers tallied 23 of the first 33 points, taking a 50-36 advantage at halftime and scoring above their torrid season average. In fact, in two wins against the Lumberjacks (14-14) this winter, Princeton has poured in 177 points.

"They're good at it," said Cloquet coach Steve Battaglia of the depth-laden Tigers, who have a wealth of playmakers. "We played well, they just have more firepower than us."

Along with the milestone-marking O'Neil — who had a banner unveiling when the Princeton senior sank his 21st and biggest point on a free-throw with 4:10 remaining — the 6-foot-7 Stimmler was no match for undersized Cloquet. Tiger teammates Adam Williams (14 points), James Flicek (11), Tate Laabs (8) and Haydn Stay (8) were also effective.

Princeton now faces second-seeded Hibbing (22-6) in the 7AAA championship tonight, Thursday, March 14, at Duluth East at 7 p.m. The Bluejackets beat the Tigers 79-76 on Feb. 16, but just like they responded to the Lumberjacks Friday, Princeton is on the prowl for revenge.

One never knows come March, however.

"Hibbing's got the horses to do it," said Battaglia. "It's going to be a good game."

To Cloquet's credit, the underdogs played an impressive game Friday, scoring 10 points above their average and twice cutting Princeton's lead down to single digits behind a game-high 28 points via Adam Schneider. Markus Pokornowski and Leslie added 14 and 13 points, respectively.

Not bad for a team that graduated 12 seniors from last year's section finalist squad and returned only one player with ample varsity experience to their roster, leading to a 2-5 start to the season.

"Credit these seniors and the rest of these guys," said Battaglia. "We were backed into a corner and they found a way to get us out. They could have folded up, but they didn't. They got us to .500, won a home playoff game and got to the region semifinal. I'm as proud of this group as I've ever been."

"We decided to turn this ship around," added Leslie. "We battled as hard as we could."

Leslie, one of three seniors along with Alex Leuzzo and Nick Flynn, has been playing basketball since kindergarten. He said wearing his purple a white jersey for the last time Friday was difficult, but something he won't soon forget.

"It was tough to say goodbye," said Leslie. "It's been a great ride. I wouldn't trade it for anything else."

Cloquet 36-34—70

Princeton 50-38—88

Cloquet — Adam Schneider 28, Markus Pokornowski 14, Riley Leslie 13, Alec Turnbull 4, Dylan Heehn 5, Alex Leuzzo 3, Nick Flynn 3. Totals 26 11-14 70.

3-point goals — Schneider 3, Pokornowski 2, Leuzzo, Leslie.

Princeton — Reilly O'Neil 25, John Stimmler 20, Adam Williams 14, Tate Laabs 8, James Flicek 11, Haydn Stay 8, Calvin Peterson 2. Totals 38 3-12 88.

3-point goals — Williams 3, O'Neil 3, Laabs 2, Flicek.