Junior Baden Noennig, the Crusaders' leading scorer, jumps for a dunk during a practice.
Patrick Buchanan knew he inherited a strong boys’ basketball team when he became coach of Mayer Lutheran. Strong team, at least, in parts of the game.
Buchannan researched the team’s players before taking the job. After he studied them, Buchannan didn’t know if the team could get stops on defense.
That all changed in his first season as coach. The Crusaders have held their opponents to less than 56 points per game after giving up over 65 points on average a season ago.
Improved defense has helped the team reach the Class 1A state tournament. The Crusaders will play Mahnomen/Waubun at 11 a.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals at Williams Arena.
The Crusaders, after defeating top-ranked Springfield in the section final, are the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
“That was our big turnaround this year,” junior Baden Noennig said in regards to defense. “It’s a big difference from last year. We definitely take pride in our defense at Mayer Lutheran.”
A key moment in the Crusaders’ season took place Jan. 9, when Mayer Lutheran lost to Minnesota River Conference opponent Jordan 88-77, dropping its record to 7-3 record. Despite the outcome, Buchanan said the way the Crusaders competed stood out.
“I started to tell them ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to state,’ ” Buchanan recalled saying after the game. “They started to really focus in on the defensive end more. From there, things started to roll.”
The Crusaders responded to the loss with a 20-game winning streak, which included a 54-46 victory over Jordan a month later in the second matchup between the two teams.
Jordan also is state tournament-bound, competing in Class 2A. The unseeded Hubmen play No. 1 seed Minnehaha Academy at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Target Center.
“We make each other stronger during the year and I think that helps us during playoff time,” Jordan coach Matt Urbanek said.
“We cheer for them and we’re glad that they are there and we know they do the same for us.”
Buchanan has emphasized defense this season, but it was last-second offense that clinched a state tournament berth.
Mayer Lutheran and Springfield were tied 75-75 in the Section 2 championship game last Friday.
With time running down, the Crusaders missed a shot that would have sent them to state. However, Noennig grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to senior Cole Hagen, whose three-point attempt beat the buzzer and went in, giving Mayer Lutheran a 78-75 victory.
“I got lucky enough to make the shot,” Hagen said. “It’s our senior year, this is the best team we’ve had in my three years since I’ve been here.”
Jack White is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
1. Run, run and run some more
Half of the field — Hinckley-Finlayson, Mahnomen/Waubun, North Woods and Cass Lake-Bena — have reached the century mark in at least one game this season. North Woods has accomplished the feat seven times, most recently with a 136-point effort against Littlefork-Big Falls in section play. The Grizzlies are the most potent team in Class 1A, averaging 87.2 points per game. The scoring onslaught isn’t just limited to teams. Mahnomen/Waubun junior guard Jayden Heisler had a 50-point performance while North Woods junior guard Cade Goggleye had a 62-point outing this season.
2. Timing everything for Hinckley-Finlayson
The Jaguars were coming off a 23-5 season in 2016-17 and, with four starters returning, were eagerly awaiting this season. Then they were moved from Class 2A to 1A because of their school enrollment. It paved a much different route to the state tournament, not only in classification but also from Section 7 to Section 5. The Jaguars (26-4) still played most of their schedule against Class 2A schools, games that resulted in three of their setbacks. The fourth was to even a bigger school (Superior, Wis.), which should be beneficial this week. Senior forward Travis Visser averages 22.2 points per game for the first-time state entrant.
3. Heritage Christian making its debut, too
The Eagles also are playing in their first state tournament, with an unusual distinction. They join Hermantown in Class 3A as the only teams with losing records in the four classes. The Eagles won seven of their last nine games to finish 13-17. Winning the next one will be a challenge. Coach Tim Herman’s squad draws No. 2-rated North Woods (29-1) of Cook, Minn., the state tournament runner-up a year ago, in the quarterfinals.
1. Brooklyn Center led by two sophomores
The Centaurs played together as a team in the spring and summer after last season. The end result is their first state tournament berth since 1982, back when there were only two classes. The Centaurs (21-8) are among the favorites after upsetting No. 1-ranked Minneapolis North 81-76 in the Section 5 championship, earning the No. 2 seed behind Minnehaha Academy. They are led by sophomore guards Lu’cye Patterson (22.7 points per game) and Rudwan Tahir, both three-year starters, and junior forward Adreone Sprinkles. Brooklyn Center coach Matthew McCollister is also the head coach of the Tanzanian men’s and women’s national teams.
2. Plenty of size on display: 7-3, 6-11, 6-10 ...
If you want to watch size in the paint and behind the three-point arc, the Class 2A field offers plenty: Breckenridge 6-8 junior Noah Christensen, Minnewaska Area 6-8 junior Shawn Carsten, Minnehaha Academy 6-10 freshman Chet Holmgren and Jordan 6-11 senior Andrew Niebuhr. But Esko sports the tallest of all in 7-3 senior Adam Trapp. Christensen averages 20.2 points per game, while Trapp is the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots and averages 16.6 points per game.
3. Don’t give up on the comeback Lakers
Minnewaska Area’s roster consists of seven seniors, veteran leadership it relied on in Section 3 tournament play. It trailed by nine, 16 and 13 points in its last three games before rallying for victories — one in overtime and the other two by two points each. First up for the Lakers (21-7) is No. 4-rated Caledonia (26-4).