By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
Nearly a year removed from a season-ending knee injury, Maple River senior guard Jaron Denn isn’t quite back to full strength. But seven games into his comeback, he says he’s getting closer.
“I’m still feeling a little slow, but it’s coming back,” said Denn, who tore his ACL 10 games into the 2011-2012 season. “I’m not a guy who likes to make excuses. I just feel a step or two slow, but it will come back as the season goes on.”
Denn showed little signs of rust, scoring nine points, including two second half 3-pointers, as Maple River blew out Mankato Loyola 60-31 Thursday in the opening round of the Pepsi Holiday Boys Basketball Tournament at Bethany Lutheran College.
Eagles head coach Chad Ostermann hasn’t taken it easy on Denn.
“He’s our best player and done everything we’ve asked of him,” he said.
“Coach has stayed the same with me,” Denn said. “He pushes me, and expects the same out of me. I expect the same, too; I just want to help the team.”
The Crusaders held an early 5-2 lead, before a Ben Larson 3-pointer tied the game, followed by a Denn bucket, a Zach Krengel put-back and three straight layups by center Brian Doering. The rally put Maple River ahead 15-7.
“We would’ve liked a faster tempo, but I thought we did a pretty good job of getting the ball inside in the first half,” Ostermann said. “What I was happy about was when they were deliberate on offense, we were able to be disciplined and not break down after a spending a lot of time on defense.”
Both teams struggled late in the first half, combining for just two field goals in the final three minutes before a 26-14 halftime score.
“I was happy with our defense, holding them to 26 points at half,” Loyola head coach Tim Anderson said. “I thought we would come back to play well in the second half.
“We didn’t and you have to give them credit. When they shoot well, not many teams can stay around, and defensively, they’re probably the best we’ll see.”
Loyola’s Carson Seifert drained a 15-foot jumper to begin the half, before the Eagles embarked on a 17-5 run, capped by Denn’s pair of 3-pointers and a bucket and a foul by Krengel to widen the lead to 43-21.
“We were able to open it up on the outside in the second half,” Ostermann said. “We made some shots, had some different guys on offense step up and that’s always critical for that to happen against a good opponent like Loyola.”
For the Crusaders to defeat the senior-heavy Eagles, Anderson knew from the outset it was imperative his young team win in the categories that don’t show up in the stat sheets.
“They have more talent but we’ve got to make up for it with our energy,” he said. “They killed us inside tonight, they beat us down the court.
“It was disappointing for our team. But give Maple River credit: they out-hustled us and that’s one thing we can’t let teams do.”
Brian Doering led the Eagles with 12 points; Krengel added eight points and nine rebounds. Connor Tanhoff led the Crusaders with seven points.
“The thing I liked about tonight was we get to get rid of this game and play again tomorrow,” Anderson said. “In 24 hours, I hope we feel better.”
Ostermann can relate to first-round losses in the Pepsi Holiday Tournament.
“We’ve been to this tournament before where we’ve lost the first game,” he said. “Any time you advance in a tournament, it’s nice. So we feel very fortunate.”
Maple River (5-2) plays a semifinal game at 6:30 p.m. today. Loyola has a consolation semifinal at 6 p.m. All Pepsi Tournament games are at Bethany Lutheran College.