By PATRICK SLACK
Browerville would have a perfect record if not for Upsala.
The Cardinals require no such disclaimers.
Undefeated Upsala, the only team to defeat Browerville this season, topped the Tigers for a third time in Tuesday’s Sub-Section 5A West finals in Long Prairie 68-61 to move a game away from the state tournament.
The first two meetings during the regular season differed vastly, with the Cardinals running away with the opening contest 85-59 before squeaking by 63-56 the second time around.
Early on, it appeared Tuesday’s showdown would mirror the former, as the Cardinals scorched the Tigers’ defense with six shots from beyond the arc in building a 32-10 advantage.
“Our goal each game is to try and start fast,” Upsala head coach Vern Capelle said. “We have played with a lead most of the season and that seems to build momentum for us.”
“The great thing about this team is that even when we have a slow start, we have the confidence to make quick runs and get contributions from a lot of different players,” he said.
By the end of the half, Upsala still maintained firm control, heading into the break ahead 38-21.
But Browerville asserted itself right away coming out of the locker room, slicing the Cardinals’ lead to single digits at 40-32 with an 11-2 run.
“We know that Browerville is not going to quit,” he said. “That’s not their nature, so we tried to keep emphasizing to our players that when they make their runs, we have to stay focused and keep executing.”
Upsala weathered the rally, padding its lead back to 19 at 56-37 with under seven minutes remaining.
Browerville wasn’t ready to go away quietly, though, as its perimeter shots began to fall.
The Tigers mixed a trio of three-point shots with a basket and free throw to produce a 12-0 run that cut the Cardinals’ lead to 56-49 with 2:11 on the clock, suddenly putting the outcome back in doubt.
“I think the run at the end of the game came down to a combination of us not handling the time and score situation very well and then they hit some big shots from players that we weren’t necessarily focusing on,” Capelle said. “We missed some shots that we normally would make, and that allowed them to cut into our lead.”
Trying to conserve the clock, Browerville began to foul, putting Upsala senior Nick Frieler on the line the next three trips down the court for one-and-one attempts.
Frieler calmly sank 5-of-6 free throws, preserving the Cardinals’ two-possession edge.
Browerville hit two more threes and drained all three free throws on a pair of fouls from beyond the arc, but failed on multiple occasions to close within a single score, as senior Garrett Wolf iced the game at the line, sinking five free throws to seal the win.
“I can’t stress how important it was that our free-throw shooting was solid at the end of the game,” Capelle said. “We knew that the only chance Browerville had to win was to put us on the line and hope we missed.”
“For Nick and Garrett to step up and make those free throws was a huge factor in our being able to maintain a multiple-possession lead.”
The Cardinals finished 9-of-16 from downtown, with senior Andy Nelson draining a trio of threes and senior Eric Frieler and junior Christian Pekarek each hitting two.
Pekarek led Upsala with an 18-point performance, joined in double figures by Wolf with 11 and Nick Frieler with 10.
Nelson added nine points and senior Matt Abeler and Eric Frieler each added seven.
Junior Dylan Zimmerman and senior Avery Smieja controlled the paint, with Zimmerman grabbing 11 rebounds and Smieja blocking six shots.
The Cardinals will now advance to take on Barnum in Friday’s Section 5A championship game in Crosby, with the winner moving on to state.
Upsala 68, Browerville 61
Browerville 21 40 – 61
Upsala 38 30 – 68
Upsala—Christian Pekarek, 18; Garrett Wolf, 11; Nick Frieler, 10; Andy Nelson, 9; Matt Abeler, 7; Eric Frieler, 7; Avery Smieja, 3; Dylan Zimmerman, 3. Rebounds: Zimmerman, 11; Smieja, 6; Pekarek, 5. Assists: Zimmerman, 4; Wolf, 3. Blocks: Smieja, 6.