Upsala's Matt Abeler (left), Garrett Wolf (center), and Southwest Minnesota Christian's Gabe Vander Veen battled for the ball in the first half of their teams' Class 1A semifinal game Friday at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES * e
Junior forward Leighton Sampson came out of Friday’s Class 1A state basketball tournament game to a standing ovation from a Southwest Minnesota Christian crowd eager to celebrate again at the final horn.
At the same time, Upsala junior guard Christian Pekarek fouled out to claps from fans before they fled the Target Center.
The late-game fates of both team’s leading scorers told the story of the Eagles’ 71-62 victory against previously undefeated Upsala.
With the victory, the third-seeded Eagles (29-1) play No. 1 seed Maranatha Christian Academy (31-1) for the championship at noon on Saturday. The Eagles, winners of four consecutive titles from 1999 to 2002, took second last season.
Sampson, a 6-foot-5 forward who poured in a career-high 33 points, said his teammates “got me the ball pretty well.”
Upsala coach Vern Capelle said, “Even when we’ve played against good post players we’ve usually been able to contain the passes inside or at least give help so the guys don’t get good looks. He’s just so physical and he’s very athletic.”
Pekarek scored a team-high 22 points as Upsala (31-1) suffered the first blemish to its record.
DAVID La VAQUE
1. Leighton Sampson, Southwest Minnesota Christian
A giant of a man, Sampson scored anytime he touched the basketball within five feet of the hoop. He finished with 33 points and 12 rebounds. The Cardinals had no answer for his presence on the offensive or defensive end.
2. Christian Pekarek, Upsala
Doing everything in his power to keep his team in it to the bitter end, Pekarek blew past his defenders like they were standing still. His point total would have been much higher without Sampson clogging up the lane. He finished with 22 points.
3. Klint Knutson, Southwest Minnesota Christian
Handling the ball for much of the game, Knutson was the caretaker within a smothering Upsala backcourt defense. His smart decisions with the basketball helped SW MN Christian come out victorious. Knutson finished with 12 points and 5 assists.
-Jake Lunemann, MN Basketball Hub