We’re alive. We’ve got work to do.
So went coach Jay Wendland’s assessment of St. Croix Lutheran’s 37-35 victory against Esko in the Class 2A tournament quarterfinals Wednesday at Target Center.
The top-seeded Crusaders (29-2) held off a furious rally by defending champion Esko in the final 40 seconds. The Eskomos (23-8) held possession the entire time but couldn’t drain a critical basket.
“It all starts with our mental toughness,” said Ade Lamu, a junior guard for St. Croix Lutheran, located in West St. Paul. “I think we did a good job with that. We didn’t lose our composure or get angry.”
St. Croix Lutheran’s halftime lead of 10-7 was enough to drive everyone crazy.
The Crusaders shot just 19 percent, four points better than Esko. The teams combined to go 7-of-41 from the field, combining for a score fans could count with their fingers.
“There was a little bit of a lid on that basket in the first half,” Wendland said. His Crusaders were struggling to play a desired up-tempo pace. Players also settled for outside shots that wouldn’t fall.
Esko, meanwhile, labored with the Crusaders’ bruising style.
“It was just so physical,” Eskomos coach Mike Devney said. “To be 10-7 with the skill level both teams have?”
With less than 10 minutes to go, St. Croix Lutheran built a 28-19 lead and appeared in control.
“We said in the huddle, ‘You’ve got to step up and play like men right now,’” Devney said.
Esko’s players showed a champion’s heart and clawed back to a four-point deficit. But the Crusaders never surrendered their lead.
“Do we need to tighten some things up?” Wendland said. “Definitely. But you’ll take a win any way you can get it at the state tournament.”