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Top games: Mankato East looks to secure Big 9 Conference with victory at Owatonna

By Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine, 02/27/23, 10:15AM CST


Feb. 28: The Class 3A Cougars and Class 4A Huskies will follow divergent paths in the postseason.

Photo by SportsEngine

We task our reporters with identifying several intriguing games throughout the state to assemble our Top Games of the Week. The matchups are presented in no particular order, and when there are additional games we want to highlight, we’ll include them with brief notes.

Mankato East vs. Owatonna

7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28

A conference championship is at stake when Mankato East travels Tuesday to Owatonna. The Cougars, 10th in the Class 3A rankings by Minnesota Basketball News, are one game up on Owatonna and two up on Rochester Century in the loss column heading into the final week of the regular season and can all but assure themselves of the Big 9 Conference's best record by winning on Tuesday night.

Mankato East (19-5, 16-4) has lost three of its past seven games but controls its fate by facing the top two conference contenders this week. A victory at Owatonna (17-6, 14-5) would leave the Cougars at least two games up in the loss column over both the Huskies and Century with one conference game remaining.

But the Cougars likely have larger goals looming. And a conference championship is not necessarily a harbinger of postseason success.

In 2018-19, East split the regular-season series with Austin and finished tied with the Packers atop the conference standings. The Cougars reached the Class 3A, Section 2 championship game but lost to an imposing Waseca squad. Last season, East placed third in the conference standings and went on to win the section title and place third in the Class 3A state tournament.

For its part, having a shot of at least sharing a Big 9 Conference championship is an impressive feat for an Owatonna squad that lost so much to graduation following its most successful season in school history.

The Huskies set team records for victories (28), scoring average (73 points per game) and point differential (plus 19.5) while finishing sixth in the Class 4A state tournament. Those not returning this season included Evan Dushek, the school's all-time leading scorer, and Brayden Williams, who set school single-season records for assists (213), steals (116) and points (701).

A senior-dominated lineup that includes Blake Burmeister, Collin Vick, Ayden Walter and Jason Klecker has kept Owatonna a contender in a section that includes No. 2-4A Lakeville North.

The Cougars, also with a team that looks drastically different from a year ago because of graduation losses, seem to have a clearer postseason path. New Ulm is a contender in Class 3A Section 2, but there is no stacked Waseca squad standing in the way this season.

Sophomores Brogan Madson and Ganden Gosch, junior Carson Schweim and senior Giles Lancaster lead the way for East, who have played in the section championship game in five of the past six seasons.

Brainerd vs. Alexandria

7:15 p.m., Friday, March 3

Brainerd, which has won 11 of its past 12 games, is in a similar position as Mankato East, up two games in the loss column with games against its two nearest conference competitors remaining. A victory at No. 7-3A Alexandria on Friday would ensure the Warriors (20-4, 14-0) of a conference championship.

And, just like Mankato East in 2018-19, Brainerd may very well find a conference title counts for little in the postseason. The No. 9-4A Warriors are heading into some stiff competition in the Class 4A, Section 8 playoffs, where Lake Conference-tested Buffalo and Moorhead lay in wait.

Moorhead has been a particularly vexing opponent for the Warriors. The Spuds, with a 72-66 victory on Feb. 24, are the only team to have beaten Brainerd in a month. And Moorhead upset Brainerd in last season's section final and eliminated the Warriors in the 2021 section semifinals.

But Brainerd, led by 6-foot-3 senior guard John Pecarich, has the firepower to succeed. Pecarich is a do-it-all kind of player, averaging 23.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Eli Hoelz, a 6-foot-1 junior, averages 16.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists and 6-foot-2 senior Nick Evanson averages 14.9 points and seven rebounds. Those three combined for 59 points in a 75-72 overtime victory over Alexandria on Jan. 26.

The Cardinals (18-4, 12-2) are looking to get back to the Class 3A state tournament after a disappointing loss to St. Cloud Tech in the Section 8 championship game last season. And with 6-foot-9 junior Grayson Grove and 6-foot-7 sophomore Chase Thompson, Alexandria will be a leading postseason contender.

Friday's game at Alexandria will provide a solid playoff warmup for both teams.

Minnetonka vs. Totino-Grace

7 p.m., Wednesday, March 1

As for playoff warmups, Wednesday's game between No. 4-4A Minnetonka and No. 2-3A Totino-Grace should be an entertaining one.

Totino-Grace (16-7, 14-3) fell from the No. 1 ranking it held for most of the season following a 51-43 loss at Osseo on Feb. 21. Before that game, the Eagles had only three losses to Minnesota opponents, two against No. 1-4A Park Center and one to No. 2-4A Lakeville North.

Injuries have hounded Totino-Grace, the defending Class 3A state champion, for much of the season. And standout senior Tommy Humphries did not play in the loss at Osseo, when the Orioles outscored the Eagles 31-16 in the second half after trailing by seven points at the break.

But Totino-Grace has a talented and deep lineup led by Taison Chatman and Patrick Bath. Isaiah Johnson and Tyler Wagner join the group to give the defensive-minded Eagles five double-digit scorers.

Minnetonka (18-6, 7-4), led by juniors Andy Stefonowicz (16.6 points per game) and Jordan Cain (14.1 points per game), is making a push to come out of the Class 4A, Section 2 tournament that has been dominated by Eden Prairie and Shakopee over the past decade. Chaska, in 2017, is the only team other than those two teams to win the section title in the past 11 years.

Seniors Ibrahim El-Amin and Jalen Cain, both averaging more than 13 points per game, give the Skippers strong and balanced scoring. Minnetonka won a state championship in 2008, its most recent state tournament appearance.

Other games to keep an eye on

Park Center vs. Maple Grove, 7 p.m., Friday, March 3. Park Center coach James Ware said his team's one loss last season played an important role in the Pirates' 2022 Class 4A state championship run. So perhaps the No. 1-4A Pirates' home loss to Elk River last week will be the springboard to a repeat. Park Center (21-1, 16-1) looks to start a new winning streak against Osseo and Maple Grove (17-6, 12-4) to end the regular season.

Minneapolis North vs. Hopkins, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28. This cross-class rivalry is usually entertaining, although No. 6-2A North (16-8, 10-1) is coming off a humbling 102-67 loss to No. 3-4A Wayzata last weekend. No. 7-4A Hopkins (16-8, 6-5) is coming off a 73-62 loss at Buffalo.

Wayzata vs. Buffalo, 7 p.m., Thursday, March 2. Buffalo (20-5, 7-4) fell out of the Class 4A top 10 after consecutive losses but rebounded with its victory over Hopkins last week. Starting a new win streak will be a tough task against Wayzata (19-4, 10-1).

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