The Mankato Loyola boys’ basketball team dominated the early years of the Pepsi Holiday Tournament winning four of the first five championships from 1998-2002.
The Crusaders have yet to win the tournament title since, but they took their first step in achieving that championship goal by defeating Minnesota Valley Lutheran 74-62 in the first round of the 2013 tournament Thursday night at Bethany Lutheran College.
Loyola jumped to an early lead fueled by its pressure defense. The Crusaders used steals and deflections to race out to a 28-11 lead.
“That was one of the keys in the beginning of the game to have an effective transition. We knew they were going to try and run on us,” Loyola senior guard Lance Gaspar said. “Coach really stressed we have to get back on defense and try to create steals and it ultimately turned into layups on the other end.”
Creating the early steals and lay-ins were Gaspar and Reilly Knutson. Each scored a pair of baskets resulting from steals as part of a 12-0 spurt to give Loyola a 20-7 lead with 9:40 left in the first.
“Our offense kind of goes by how our defense is,” Loyola head coach Tim Anderson said. “We’re not good inside, post defense or post offense, so we kind of have to get our defense in transition and put pressure on people. We’ve been successful with that so far this year.”
Gaspar, who’s going to the University of Dayton on a Division I soccer scholarship, showed he’s pretty good at basketball, too, as he was key in Loyola building a 36-20 halftime advantage. He scored 12 of his team-high 21 points in the game’s first 18 minutes.
He contributes to the team in more ways than just scoring.
“Lance is just a great athlete; he runs the floor and he’s a tough kid,” Anderson said. “I think he was probably our leading rebounder and he distributes the ball well.
“You like to have that type of kid that can get inside even though he’s only 6-feet tall. We need everybody to rebound for us and our guards know that.”
The Chargers would not go quietly making a run in the second half as they took advantage of Loyola’s lack of inside height.
The 6-foot-5 Nick Dewanz was the recipient of easy throw-ins from the perimeter. He scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half as he helped MVL cut its deficit to single digits with seven minutes remaining after trailing by as many as 19 early in the second.
“We kind of did a couple of different things,” Anderson said. “We fronted him to start out and they were getting the high-low and we weren’t getting our help over there. After halfway through, we said let’s play behind him and we didn’t do a very good job of that either.”
With MVL forced to foul late, Loyola did a great job of calmly making free throws at the end to extend its lead back to double digits by game’s end.
“That is huge in practice,” said Gaspar. “Do a drill, shoot ten free throws. Do another drill, shoot ten free throws. That’s something coach stresses a lot.”
Carson Seifert scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half making six free throws in the final minute and a half. Knutson finished with 12 points and Ryan Van Blarcom added 11.
For the Chargers, Chad Lease led the scoring with 21 points.
Loyola (6-3) advances to play Fairmont in the semifinals tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Bethany Lutheran College while MVL (4-4) will take on Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial in the consolation semifinals at 6 p.m.