ST. PAUL — Just seeing the basketball go through the net provided a sense of relief.
It also settled down the Mankato east boys basketball team, which was coming off a rough shooting night.
"Certainly, it was good to make a few," East coach Joe Madson said. "It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better than (Wednesday). We got our offense going again."
East made seven 3-pointers, then hit a batch of clutch free throws in the final two minutes to defeat Sauk Rapids-Rice 68-58 in the consolation semifinals of the Class AAA boys basketball tournament Thursday at Concordia-St. Paul. In Wednesday's 79-64 quarterfinal loss to Delano, the Cougars made only 4 of 17 from 3-point range, but after a slow start Thursday, the ball started falling from long range.
"We feel better that we were able to come up here and get a win," senior Damani Hayes said.
Edmon Oyet opened the game with a 3-pointer, and Uhana Ochan's second spectacular dunk put East on top 12-10 after six minutes.
Sauk Rapids-Rice put together a seven-point run, but Hayes and Jax Madson hit consecutive 3-pointers as East regained the lead at 18-17.
Madson hit two more 3-pointers and Kong Kong added another as the Cougars took a 33-30 lead at halftime. East was 6 of 13 from the arc in the opening half.
"We were all ready to go," Hayes said. "We really needed this win, and we feel good about what happened today."
Sauk Rapids-Rice opened the second half with seven straight points, but Hayes' 3-pointer and assist to Ochan on another dunk settled things for East, starting a 9-2 run.
The Cougars played their best defense in the middle of the second half, scrapping for loose balls and rebounding on the defensive end. That started an 8-0 burst, capped by Madson's drive to the basket that made it 56-45 with 4:35 remaining.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Hayes said. "All year, we've tried to lock down on defense. Once we get some stops, everyone gets going."
Joich Gong made 6 of 8 free throws in the final two minutes, offsetting a pair of 3-pointers, and Madson was 4 of 4 as the Cougars secured the victory.
"That's two great sophomores who are going to do great things here," Hayes said. "I knew they were going to make their free throws. I have 100 percent trust in them."
Madson finished with 15 points and five rebounds, while Ochan scored 14 points. Hayes scored 12, and Gong added 10. East was 19 of 27 at the free-throw line, while Sauk Rapids-Rice was 2 of 4.
"We played like it was a section championship game," coach Madson said. "Our second-half energy was so good. When we play defense like that, we're such a good team."
East (25-6) plays St. Thomas Academy for the consolation championship at 4 p.m. Friday at Concordia-St. Paul. The Cadets lost to Columbia Heights 75-62 in the quarterfinals Wednesday and defeated Hermantown 94-63 in a consolation game Thursday.
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier