Perhaps it was appropriate that Thursday evening’s Section 3A boys’ basketball championship game went to overtime. The South’s second-seeded Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Knights and North’s top-seeded Central Minnesota Christian Bluejays had gone to overtime in their regular-season tilt, Jan. 31 in Prinsburg, with the latter coming out on top, 81-70.
And though an unfortunate bounce of the basketball, which allowed CMC’s Caleb Vander Beek to score at the horn and force an extra period, the Knights exacted revenge at Southwest Minnesota State University’s R.A. facility in Marshall – claiming a 62-59 victory to advance to the MSHSL Class A state tournament for the first time since 2018, when they won it all.
“It’s a typical Section 3A championship game; these kids, on both sides of the floor … everybody in this gym should tip their hat to the effort that was put forth by the Central team and by our team – the epitome of what high school competition is all about,” said Russell-Tyler-Ruthton head coach Daren Gravley, whose Knights (27-3) will play top-seeded Hayfield (29-2) at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the state quarterfinals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. “I’m very proud of our kids. Unfortunately, somebody has to lose and I feel for the Central kids; they worked hard, they’re a great group of kids with a great coaching staff and our hats are off to them.”
Vander Beek’s fortune, resulting from the R-T-R defense knocking the ball off Ben Van Eps knee with two ticks remaining in regulation, allowed for the easiest of tallies at the horn, and the Knights had to feel as if it again might not be in the cards. However, continued strong play by posts Dylan Anderson and Drew Werkman, combined with the sharpshooting of Cody Wichmann and 4-of-4 from the foul line by cousin Aiden Wichmann down the stretch, proved enough to help the Knights lift the 3A title trophy again.
“That was a lucky play right there,” Cody Wichmann said of Vander Beek’s tying hoop. “But we got them in overtime this time and got our revenge.”
And after the Bluejays answered Anderson’s soft jump hook with tallies from Case Mulder and Van Eps to go up 58-55 with 1:22 remaining in the four-minute overtime period, Cody Wichmann knotted the score with an NBA-range three-pointer from the left flank.
“It was amazing; I came out there, made that clutch shot and … wondered how it went in,” he said.
“Well … Cody’s a shooter,” Gravley said. “That’s what Cody does; he’s knocks shots down for us and he’s been hitting big shots for us all year. That was probably the biggest so far.”
A couple exchanges of possession later and the Bluejays pressing, Aiden Wichmann was fouled near midcourt. The Knights’ leading scorer in the game (16 points, five rebounds, three assists) promptly canned both free throws, giving R-T-R a two-point lead with 20.1 seconds to play. Mulder had the opportunity to tie the game with 7.6 seconds, but missing the second of two free throws, the Knights held all the cards. Aiden Wichmann mimicked his earlier effort from the charity stripe with seven seconds to play and the Knights’ celebrated another Section 3A championship.
“We were able to keep our composure, and we jumped out to an early 7-0 run; they smacked us right back in the mouth with a 14-0 run and our guys hung tough,” Gravley said. “Our guys hung tough and leaned on each other. We went to a two-post offense, got some looks at the bucket in the second half; that really fueled us to take the lead, and the defensive game plan was executed to perfection by the kids.”
In combination with a defense that looked to prevent the Bluejays from penetrating, with movement that sprung players through pin-down screens and back screens, the Knights used their interior size and mobility to score from close range – especially in the second stanza.
“That’s something we’ve been working on all year; we haven’t showed it a lot, but we’ve been waiting for an opportunity,” Gravley said. “We ran it a little bit in the playoffs here and there, but the guys were extremely patient when we went to that (two-post). We reversed the ball and made them defend us, and credit to Dylan Anderson, Drew Werkman and Logan Lamote just working down low. The guards did a good job of letting them have that moment; they were willing to feed them the ball, willing to pass on some shots for themselves – just a tremendous team effort.”
Anderson and Werkman shared the paint and the load for the majority of the second, which saw the Knights come back from six points down (28-22) at halftime. The pair finished with nearly identical numbers, as the former posted a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double and the latter recording a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double.
“That offense, there, we stole from T-M-B; they run a two-post offense,” said Werkman, whose layup with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation initially appeared to be the game winner. “And it’s always good to have D.A.; he’s got the long arms and gets up really high with his vertical. I know he had 12 points and … a bunch of rebounds and blocks.”
Anderson finished with three blocks on the evening, none of which was better than the one that directly followed his lead-forging bucket with 9:21 remaining in the second half that gave the Knights a 40-38 lead – R-T-R’s first since the opening five minutes of the tilt. Not only did Anderson shut down the Bluejays’ offense with a mighty swat, but he bookended the effort with a second consecutive tally at the other end – sending notice to the CMC bench that was ‘in the groove.’
“Yes, I was,” he said. “We’d been practicing the two-post offense, knew these guys (Central) were a little smaller, so we thought we could put it to work. I guess we just had to play good defense behind it, and that’s what won the ball game.”
It was, however, an uphill battle after an early Ethan Bulthuis-fueled 14-0 run pulled CMC up from a seven-point deficit to a 14-7 lead. Anderson managed to stop the bleeding with a putback bucket, but the Bluejays had the Knights on the back foot for the remainder of the half.
“The Bulthuis (26 points) kid was unconscious from outside, what a great game he had, but we just stuck to it and got enough rebounds and made enough free throws down the stretch to get ‘er done,” Gravley said. “We wanted to try to make the dribble penetration as difficult as possible and we knew we had to be on point on their ball screens. We just wanted to make things as difficult as possible, know where the shooters were and try to limit them to one-and-done as much as possible.”
Which definitely worked in the second half, as the Knights’ interior pairing forced the Bluejays to expended energy in defense rather than heading to the hoop in second half.
“We just drew on experience from the past, had the same thing happen to us against T-M-B; we fell down early, we come back, battled in the second half and took a lead,” Gravley said. “They took a lead late and we took it right back. We’ve been competing hard all year; we played Central up at their place earlier this year and went to overtime there too. We knew we could compete. It was just a matter of if we could make enough shots.”
Blake Christianson (2-for-5 from 3-point range) and Darrick Baartman (eight points apiece) both managed to hit a few perimeter shots in the first half, helping keep the Knights within striking distance. But the second and overtime periods, with the exception of Cody Wichmann’s beautiful bomb, was focused on the paint. As Coach Gravley noted, the R-T-R guards proved unselfish in sticking with the game plan of getting the basketball inside. Aiden Wichmann and Tucker Haroldson (team-high six assists) were extremely patient in waiting for the best time for an entry pass. When it was delivered, Anderson and Werkman were in prime positions for either a one-step jump hook or a muscled up kiss off the glass.
“Our bigs did a heckuva job; they did very well with the ball and on the offensive glass,” Aiden Wichmann said. “Drew’s a big boy and I’m not surprised he likes to get in there and mix it up. He can mix it up with anyone in the state. We believe in him and D.A. and they got the job done. D. A. gave us a huge momentum swing there with six minutes left … helping us get on top and into position to win this game.”
A win that allows the Knights to travel to the Barn (Williams Arena) on the campus of the University of Minnesota, where the Knights’ 2018 state championship run began with an 87-70 victory over Hinckley-Finlayson.
“It’s pretty amazing; these kids have worked hard all year and it’s a dream come true,” Gravely said.
R-T-R 22 31 9 – 62
CMC 28 25 6 – 59