By Denny Weller
Special to The Free Press
Maple River senior forward Zach Krengel is a self proclaimed defensive ace. Thursday night at the Mankato East gym, Krengel shook that image.
Krengel put through a career-high 26 points and lead the No. 1-seeded Eagles to a 73-71 Section 2AA, South Subsection semifinal win over United South Central.
“I am not usually a scorer; I am more of a defender,” Krengel said. “The team needed me tonight, so I did what I had to do. I was working my butt off trying to get position, and my role tonight was to score more. It wasn’t the prettiest game we’ve had but in the playoffs like this, it comes down to who makes the plays and I felt we made a few more.”
Maple River, which lost a 62-61 decision earlier this season to the Rebels in Wells, used a 16-2 burst midway through the first half to build a 38-20 lead on Krengel’s 7-footer with 4:55 remaining. Krengel and junior center Brian Doering shredded USC’s interior defense for 12 points each in the opening half.
“March Madness is all about making enough plays to survive and advance,” Maple River coach Chad Ostermann said. “I felt we had an advantage at Zach’s position so went there early and often on the post up. ... He’s more known for his defense, but tonight was his turn to score on offense.”
USC (18-10) trimmed the lead to 38-34 at the break by reeling off 14 unansered points. A pair of layups off inbound plays by senior guard Trey Allis and junior forward Steve Voigt ignited things before senior guard Cole Stencel’s 3-pointer and two foul shots, along with sophomore guard Nate Pederson’s three-point play, produced momentum for the Rebels.
“Our kids gave everthing they had, but that’s indicitive of our team all year,” USC coach Robert Stevermer said. “We just didn’t have quite enough time to crawl out of that hole. (Voigt) was outstanding for us. He’s a kid who understands the game and we’re fortunate to have him back next year.”
Voigt and Stencel each totaled 11 points over the opening 18 minutes for the Rebels, who couldn’t get any closer than the final score in the second half. Senior guard Ben Larson fired in a trio of 3-pointers in the second half for the Eagles (24-4), but it was Krengel who kept coming up with huge shots in critical times.
After Pederson’s left-side triple cut the deficit to 54-51, Krengel worked the offensive glass for a basket and then followed that moments later with a six-point flurry — two foul shots and a pair of follow-up baskets — to put the Eagles in front 62-53 with 5:29 to go.
USC made one more charge, closing to within 71-68 on Pederson’s top-of-the-key 3-pointer with 57 seconds left. However, one free throw each from Jonah Breiter and Michael Lewis was enough to put the game out of reach.
Voigt ended up with 27 points and six rebounds for the Rebels. Stencel scored 17 points, Pederson had 15 and Allis finished with 12.
Senior guard Jaron Denn tallied 13 points and five rebounds for the Eagles, who got seven assists apiece from Larson and Lewis. Krengel also came up with a team-best four steals and eight boards.
Maple River will meet Hayfield Monday at 6 p.m. in the South Subsection title game at Minnesota State’s Bresnan Arena.