By PATRICK SLACK
Upsala capped the most successful season in school history with a fourth-place finish in the Class A state tournament, closing with a 31-2 record.
The Cardinals opened the tournament with a 71-60 victory over Battle Lake before dropping a 71-62 thriller against eventual champion Southwest Minnesota Christian in Friday’s semifinals and a 50-38 contest against Rushford-Peterson in Saturday’s third-place game.
Upsala 71, Battle Lake 60
Battle Lake’s time may be coming.
But Upsala proved it is better now, as the Cardinals shook off a young, scrappy Battlers squad that started five underclassmen to emerge on top 71-60 in Thursday’s Class A state quarterfinals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Battle Lake scored the opening basket of the game, but it appeared it wouldn’t grab a lead from that point on, as Upsala went on a 10-0 run to seize early control.
The Cardinals remained in front the rest of the half, grabbing its biggest lead at 32-20 with 3:29 left.
Battle Lake responded with an 8-0 run to get back in the game, then hit a basket at the buzzer to make it a 36-30 Upsala lead heading into the locker room.
The Battlers stayed hot when play resumed, taking its first lead since the open of the game with a 7-0 run, then inched its lead up to two scores at 45-41.
Down three with 10 minutes left, Upsala reeled off a game-clinching 16-2 run, capped by a senior Garrett Wolf layup with 2:44 left to push the Cardinals’ lead to double digits at 62-51.
Battle Lake would work the gap back to single digits, but never seriously threatened again, with the Cardinals improving their unbeaten record to 31-0 and securing a spot in the semifinals.
Wolf scored 11 first-half points on his way to finishing with 15, while junior Christian Pekarek scored 17 of his game-high 25 in the second half.
Senior Avery Smieja added nine points and 12 rebounds while limiting the Battlers’ opportunities in the paint.
Second-seeded Upsala will take on third-seeded Southwest Minnesota
Christian in Friday’s semifinals at Target Center at 2 p.m. Southwest Minnesota Christian defeated Walker-Hackensack-Akeley 68-38 in its quarterfinal game.
Southwest Minnesota Christian 71, Upsala 62
It was a clash between a program on the rise and a deeply entrenched power.
Upsala was making just its second trip to state in school history, with its first-ever win coming the day before.
Southwest Christian, on the other hand, had been to the state finals the year before and was eager for its first title since sweeping four in a row from 1999-2002.
In the end, massive all-state junior center Leighton Sampson tipped the scale in Southwest Christian’s favor, withstanding every scheme Upsala threw at him, as the Eagles held on for a 71-62 win in Friday’s state semifinals at Target Center.
The Eagles came out in attack mode, sprinting to a 25-9 lead while Upsala scrambled for answers to try and contain Sampson.
The Cardinals answered by attacking the basket while their defense tightened, going on a 16-0 run, during which they made 10-of-10 free throws, to tie the score late in the first half.
“I have seen our team shoot free throws very well, so I knew that we were capable of shooting well in a big game like this,” Capelle said. “A big part of our offensive philosophy is to get to the free-throw line and our players work very hard to become good shooters from the free-throw line.”
Southwest Christian regained a 32-29 lead going into halftime, but found itself in a battle.
“I told them to stay focused and intense on defense, that we would get our shots if we stayed disciplined and executed,” Capelle said. “I know these kids won’t back down from any challenge. I knew if we could get some stops defensively that we would score enough to get back into the game. The important thing was for our kids to be patient and not panic.”
“This team doesn’t quit,” he said. “We have faced adversity before and know that if we stay together, we will have the opportunity to compete at the end of the game. This team is relentless when it comes to competing.”
Upsala kept within striking distance in the second half, sticking within two possessions until less than three minutes remained.
But outside of four second-half threes from senior Nick Frieler, the Cardinals couldn’t catch fire from the perimeter down the stretch, while Sampson and the Eagles closed off the interior.
“I certainly think that if we would have shot the ball better we would have had a better chance to win,” Capelle said. “We have to give credit to Southwest’s defense, as they made it difficult for us to get shots. The physical nature of the game also put us at a disadvantage as we were unable to hold our driving lines when we penetrated.”
Sampson finished with a game-high 33 points on 14-of-16 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds while diverting the Cardinals away from the lane.
“He is very strong and has great footwork in the post area,” Capelle said. “We allowed him to establish position and that put us at a disadvantage and forced us to give help in the post, which then opens other opportunities.”
Junior Christian Pekarek sank 13-of-14 free throws in a 22-point performance for Upsala.
Nick Frieler netted all 12 of his points in the second half, senior Avery Smieja scored 10, junior Dylan Zimmerman had nine and senior Garrett Wolf picked up six.
Upsala shot only 36 percent from the field, well below its season average of 48.1 percent coming in.
Southwest Christian went on to claim the Class A state title the next day, defeating top-seeded Maranatha Christian Academy 81-73.
Rushford-Peterson 50, Upsala 38
Facing its third rugged defense in as many days, Upsala suffered its lowest scoring output of the season, dropping the third-place game 50-38 to Rushford-Peterson at Concordia University in St. Paul, March 23.
The Cardinals once again dug themselves an early hole, falling behind by double digits before senior Matt Abeler hit a three to close the gap to 24-17 heading into halftime.
Upsala pulled as close as 32-28 in the second half, but for the second game in a row never led.
The offensive struggles were a combination of a letdown from the day before and facing a rugged defense for the third time in as many days, Capelle said.
“I think there was a little hangover from the Southwest game and this game was also very physical, which put us at a disadvantage,” he said.
Smieja turned in a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds to pace the Cardinals, with senior Eric Frieler netting six points and Wolf contributing five.
Rushford-Peterson forced Upsala into a season-high 24 turnovers, converting them into 24 points.