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Boys basketball: Cardinals move on in Section 5A tournament

Cromwell-Wright's Cameron Cahoon scores in front of Browerville's Brian Kunerth during the Section 5A quarterfinal game in Brainerd on Monday, March 11. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal

Last March, the Cromwell-Wright boys basketball team battled Browerville-Eagle Valley, with the Cardinals needing two nerve-racking overtimes for playoff survival.

And although no bonus basketball was needed this time around, the sequel’s ending didn’t differ.

Micah Pocernich scored 12 points and Cromwell-Wright wore down their opposition, as the Cardinals counted a 47-42 victory over the Tigers in a Section 5A quarterfinal Monday, March 11, in Brainerd.

The win moved top-seeded Cromwell-Wright (23-3) into Wednesday’s semifinal with No. 3 Nevis (18-10). Results weren’t immediately available at press time, yet a potential 14th straight victory would put the streaking Cardinals in the 5A championship, Friday, March 15.

If Cromwell-Wright plays defense like they did Monday, that shouldn’t be a problem, as while the Cardinals’ offense bent, their defense never broke against much-larger Browerville-Eagle Valley (17-11).

“We play with a lot of heart,” said Marcus Pocernich, Micah’s older brother, who finished with nine points. “In close games, we always seem to find a way to win. We just want it more than they do.”

Never was that more evident Monday, when after a slim 22-21 halftime advantage — despite early foul trouble — the Cardinals corralled a 38-28 lead on second-half 3-pointers by seniors Marcus Pocernich, Isaac Shelton and Jaden Gronner, only to see things dwindle to 41-40 with 4:10 to go.

From there, the Tigers scored just two points.

Thus, on a night when their offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Cromwell-Wright’s deadening defense was the difference-maker.

In fact, the Cardinals allow even less points per game — 40.7 — than they allotted Monday, ranking them the stingiest defense in all of Class A.

“All throughout elementary, we were shorter than our opponent, so our defense was the key to stay in close games,” said Marcus Pocernich, who at 6-foot-2, is one of the tallest Cardinals players. “Our defense keeps us in it. And that was certainly the case here.”

Mix that with their unselfish balance — as five Cardinals counted six points or more Monday — and their grittiness led by a core of six seniors, and Cromwell-Wright resides as a tough out.

“There’s not a lot of size there, but they’re competitive,” said Cardinals coach Bill Pocernich, Marcus and Micah’s father. “They just have a belief in themselves.

“We want to extend this as long as we can,” he added.

“This group of guys doesn’t like to lose,” chimed Gronner, who had six points Monday, hitting two of the Cardinals’ nine 3-pointers. “They’ve been my friends for a very long time.”

Now, those friends and teammates will look to be the first Cromwell-Wright crew of boys to get to the state tournament since 1996. Two more wins and they’ll be cutting down the nets.

Don’t tell them that, though, as a year ago, the Cardinals lost to Hinckley-Finlayson 72-40 in the 5A final, a mere step away from state. The Jaguars (21-7) were in Wednesday’s other semifinal against Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (16-12).

Despite some illnesses at Tuesday’s practice, Cromwell-Wright is keeping confident, especially if a finals rematch is had.

“If we get the opportunity to play Hinckley again, we’ll embrace that and use what happened last year to motivate us,” said Marcus Pocernich. “Our goal is to take it one step, one game at a time.”

Or, rather, one defensive stop at a time, as the old saying goes, defense wins championships.

“I really hope that comes true,” said Gronner.

Cromwell-Wright 22-25—47

Browerville-EV 21-21—42

Cromwell-Wright — Marcus Pocernich 9, Drew Libbon 2, Micah Pocernich 12, Isaac Shelton 6, Jaden Gronner 6, Gage Jones 4, Cameron Cahoon 8. Totals 15 8-11 47.

3-point goals — Ma. Pocernich 3, Mi. Pocernich 2, Shelton 2, Gronner 2.

Browerville-Eagle Valley — Zak Irsfeld 17, Brady Emery 7, Chris Ogle 6, John Schueller 7, Brian Kunerth 5. Totals 14 11-17 42.

3-point goals — Irsfeld 2, Emery.