SECTION 3A BOYS BASKETBALL: Chargers hold on to beat SWC in closing seconds

Photo by Sam Thiel WWG’s Nathan Ross shoots a jumper during their Section 3A semifinal game against Southwest Minnesota Christian on Monday at Southwest Minnesota State University. The Chargers defeated the Eagles 74-73 to advance to the Section 3A championship.

MARSHALL – The Westbrook-Walnut Grove boys basketball team knew it was going to be a fight to the finish in their Section 3A semifinal game Monday against No. 1 seed Southwest Minnesota Christian, especially with a trip to championship game on the line. In the third meeting between the two ballclubs, the evenly-matched opponents took it to the final seconds, but as the dust settled, the No. 3 seeded Chargers were able to escape with a 74-73 victory over the Eagles to advance to the title game.

With WWG holding a three-point lead with under five minutes to play, the Chargers would get a layup from Wyatt Christians before a 3-pointer from the Eagles made it 66-63 with 2:35 to go. SWC would continue to fight, getting another 3-pointer before a steal and a free throw helped tie things up at 68 with 1:35 left.

After a Charger turnover, SWC had a chance to take the lead, but a foul by the Eagles led to a pair of free throws from Parker Freeburg to give WWG a 70-67 advantage with 54 seconds left. The Eagles then cut the deficit to one on a layup, but Andrew Quade was quickly fouled and earned another trip to the line, where he made both.

Looking to make a push, the Eagles raced down the floor and capitalized with a 3-point play to tie things back up at 72-72 with 31 seconds to go. Out of timeouts, the Chargers pushed the ball across, and found Nathan Ross, who then drove into the lane and got a tough layup to go to give WWG the lead back with 8.1 seconds left.

With one last opportunity to tie or take the lead, the Eagles gave themselves a chance when they were fouled on a 3-pointer with just seven-tenths of a second remaining, putting SWC at the line. The Eagles made the first, but couldn’t connect on the final two, and the Chargers held on for the thrilling one-point victory and pushing themselves into the section title game.

WWG coach Derrick Jenniges credited SWC for continuing to battle all game and felt his team did a great job of not allowing the Eagles to get easy scoring chances while taking advantage of their opportunities when needed.

“First of all, Southwest Minnesota Christian is a top-notch program and year in and year out, they’re the team to beat,” Jenniges said. “To be in the conversation first of all is important for us, but I felt like our guys did a great job defensively in the first half of just taking away a couple of things, sticking to what we wanted to do and also not giving them opportunities to score easy baskets in transition and by turning the ball over. In the second half we had a little bit of a hard time getting that ball into the right spots offensively because of the full-court pressure but I thought for the most point our guys stayed poised and they took advantage and made free throws and got rebounds down the stretch when they needed to.”

WWG will advance to the section championship game for the first time since 2017. Freeburg was grateful for all of the support from their hometown fans and is excited to play another game for them.

“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had, I don’t think I’ve felt anything like it,” Freeburg said. “I’m so thankful with all of these people that showed up here to support us. I just can’t wait to do it again.”

An optimal start

The Chargers took early control of the pace, scoring the first five points of the game before pushing their advantage to 9-2. SWC would start to get into a groove of its own, cutting the deficit to three at 13-10, but WWG answered with a quick 7-0 run highlighted by a 3-pointer from Ethan Mischke to give the Chargers their first double-digit lead of the night at 20-10 with 11:20 left in the first half.

WWG would maintain at least an eight-to-10-point margin throughout the next several minutes before a layup by the Eagles trimmed the Chargers advantage to just six at 30-24 with 4:39 left. Once again, however, WWG came right back with a timely response, getting a pair of layups from Freeburg and Ross to extend the Chargers lead back to 10 with three minutes to go. SWC would keep itself within striking distance going into halftime, getting a basket to cut its deficit to 37-30 heading into the locker rooms.

Second-half battle

Unlike its first-half counterpart, the second frame was much tighter in the beginning stages, as SWC was able to cut the deficit to five with 11:53 left thanks to some strong offensive rebounding. A 3-pointer from Ross would put the Chargers back up nine at 50-41 with 10:28 to go, but the Eagles answered with a 7-2 run to make it a four-point game midway through the second half.

Both teams would then trade points over the next few minutes, with the Chargers and Eagles both connecting on 3-pointers to make it 61-58 WWG with 4:46 left and setting the stage for the tight finish.

Offensively, Jenniges said their biggest key was continuing to move and find the open player, especially in the final minutes.

“One of the things for us playing Southwest Minnesota Christian is just playing fluent and not trying to stand still too much and trying to move the ball and bodies and find the gaps. The first half that was going well but the second half credit to them, they took some of that away from us and we weren’t able to get the ball reversed as well,” Jenniges said. “But we got some shots when we needed to, Nathan made a great drive there at the end to give us the lead and we went without a timeout there, and we just let our guys play and hope they can make one and he got himself to the hoop and made a great score.”

WWG (22-7) will face No. 5 Dawson-Boyd on Thursday at 8 p.m. at SMSU in the championship game. Jenniges said their biggest takeaway was just making sure they put themselves in a position to extend their season and they have to be ready to go come Thursday.

“Just being able to go to practice today, that was our goal. We’re going to have to work really hard the next two days and we’re going to have a good opponent and an unfamiliar opponent for us, which doesn’t happen very often,” Jenniges said. “We’ll just get them to work and hopefully they get a good night’s rest and get ready to go.”