MANKATO — The start, not the end, was where Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s chances of winning the Section 2A boys basketball tournament unraveled.
The Knights went frigid in the opening 12 minutes, falling behind Mountain Lake-Butterfield-Odin by scores of 18-4 and 30-12. While SESM was struggling to find its shooting touch, the Wolverines were doing just about everything right.
When it was over, MLBO had maintained a double-digit lead for most of the game and run away with a 72-56 victory. It will be the first trip to state for the boys basketball team since the Mountain Lake and Butterfield-Odin athletic teams combined more than 25 years ago.
Friday’s game was all about the beginning of the first half. With the team’s tied at 2, MLBO scored three straight baskets — two on inside lay-ins by Carter Kirk and another when Cody Penner drove the baseline.
After SESM got another basket on an inside drive by Sean Mathiowetz, the Wolverines reeled off four more baskets. An inside lay-up by Beau Herrig, a free-throw line jumper by Andrew Hempeck, and 3-pointers by Penner and Herrig led to an 18-4 MLBO advantage.
“We kind of beat them at their own game,” Hempeck said afterward. “They’re a great perimeter shooting team but we came out and hit some 3s and sort of established the tone.
“And that inside pass to Carter (Kirk) has been money for us all year. He seems to be able to get it up and in even if there’s two or three guys hanging on him.”
Hempeck said the Wolverines’ game plan was to make St. Mary’s play defense.
“They’re used to just flying down the floor and running up the score,” he said. “I think they’ve been over 100 points a couple of times this year. We wanted to get the lead and make them think about other things beside shooting.”
MLBO took a a 40-25 advantage into the locker room at halftime and, while everybody kept waiting for SESM to make a run in the final 18 minutes, it never really materialized.
The Knights did score four straight baskets over a three-minute span to close the gap to 57-47, but that was as close as they could get.
Mathiowetz led SESM with 25 points. Kirk had 21 for the Wolverines and also grabbed 10 rebounds. Herrig finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds while Penner and Hempeck scored 13 and 11 points, respectively.
“The big thing for us was to just try to get a hand in their face and disrupt their shooting a little bit,” Kirk said. “When they came out cold and we were scoring inside and out I think that surprised them a little bit. Everybody was waiting for them to make a run but we just kept playing hard.
SESM ends the season at 24-5 and MLBO will take the same 24-5 record to state on Thursday. The Wolverines will take on Lakeview Christian Academy (25-5) at 11 a.m. at the U of M’s Williams Arena.
“It’s amazing to be going to state,” Hempeck said. “My dad went with the last Butterfield-Odin team in 1978 and now I get to go, too. There are no words to describe it.”