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Falcons begin converting close losses into victories

By Jim Paulsen, Star Tribune, 02/15/16, 10:38AM CST


Armstrong has suffered some head-scratching defeats, but things may be changing.

Armstrong's Collis Barber with a second half dunk Thursday night. ] JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com Robbinsdale Armstrong High School defeated Spring Lake Park 68-34 Thursday night, February 4, 2016 at Armstrong.

Armstrong boys’ basketball coach Greg Miller kept waking up in the middle of the night — to get a snack, make a bathroom run, whatever — and found himself unable to get back to sleep. Heartbreak was on his mind. Not of the amorous kind, but over the repeated gut-punch losses the Falcons were experiencing. A two-point loss here, a three-point loss there. Mistakenly called timeouts, highlight-reel three-pointers (for the opponent, of course) and how-did-that-happen turns of events were piling up.

“I’ve never had a team that’s had this happen to it,” said Miller, whose Falcons have seven losses by single-digit margins, five by a single basket. “We’ve been snakebit. You get up at night and you think about everything that you might have done differently. It wears on you.”

Armstrong toils in the Northwest Suburban Conference, arguably the toughest boys’ basketball league in the metro this season. Three conference teams — Osseo, Champlin Park and Maple Grove — have been ranked among the top 10 in the Class 4A rankings all season. Close games are common, with frequent measuring-stick games.

From a pure talent standpoint, Armstrong considers itself on par with those other conference powers. Seniors True Thompson and Jubie Alade are athletic wings who complement each other inside and out. Sophomore Race Thompson (True’s brother, both sons of former Gophers running back Darrell Thompson) is a 6-7 power forward drawing Division I interest for his athleticism and Big Ten-level frame. Sixth man Collis Barber (son of another former Gophers running back, Marion Barber) adds the luxury of a 6-5 shooter off the bench. There’s a slew of capable guards in Davonte Said, Isaiah Rollins, Tyler Priem and Jon Nelson.

Throw in forwards Chance Bowen and Simon McManus and Miller feels comfortable going 10 players deep, mixing and matching different combinations.

“We feel like we have the talent to go a long way,” Alade said. “We feel we’re as good as the other teams in the conference.”

Their record, 13-11 after an overtime loss to Maple Grove says otherwise. The Falcons have dealt with maddening bouts of inconsistency. They’ve lost to undefeated Osseo twice by a total of five points despite holding leads late in both games. Eden Prairie beat them 53-50 on a buzzer-beating, 45-foot heave. Champlin Park and Maple Grove both squeaked out two-point victories. They were within four points at Lakeville North in the final minute before losing and struggled to figure out Spring Lake Park’s slowdown tactics in a befuddling seven-point loss in mid-January, a loss that came smack-dab in the middle of a streak of six losses in seven games.

“We can lose our focus sometimes, but we never get down on ourselves,” Barber said.

Lately, it seems Armstrong’s run of rotten luck may be ending. They got some payback with a 34-point rout of Spring Lake Park with impressive ball movement, selfless play and rugged interior defense. Monday, they relinquished an 11-point second-half lead over Irondale because of some sloppy ball handling, but pulled out a 62-60 victory on a runner by Alade at the buzzer. It was the type of game the Falcons might have lost a month ago.

“That was big,” said True Thompson, who provided the type of senior leadership the Falcons needed with six consecutive points to dampen the Irondale rally. “We didn’t play our best down the stretch but found a way to win. We can build on this.”

All season Miller, in between bouts of insomnia, has stressed perseverance to his team. He hopes the tough times are behind them and believes the Falcons are primed to make a serious run into the postseason.

“We know deep down we’re good enough to win the section,” Miller said. “We could have folded the tents, but we kept coming back. The word I like to use is resilient. We just need to get a little of the luck on our side and something good is going to happen.”

And Miller will get to sleep a lot better.

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