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RTR beats NLA, 59-49, for second state title in 6 years
MINNEAPOLIS — The top-seeded Russell-Tyler-Ruthton boys basketball team defeated No. 2 New Life Academy 59-49 to capture the Class A championship at the Target Center Saturday morning.
It is the Knights’ first championship since the 2018 season when they defeated North Woods 59-55 to finish their season at 33-1.
Following the win, RTR remains perfect at the Target Center with an 8-0 record.
“It is a pretty surreal feeling right now,” RTR head coach Daren Gravley said. “We’ve put in a lot of work to get this. I’ve been fortunate enough in some capacity to coach these guys since [they were] freshmen and to see their maturity of how they’ve grown is really special.”
The Knights got off to a hot start with a Cody Wichmann 3-pointer sparking the Knights on a 9-2 run and prompting an Eagles timeout.
The Eagles responded by working the ball inside and grabbing offensive rebounds. Despite their five first-half offensive rebounds, New Life Academy’s effort on the glass translated to 2 second-chance points.
Aiden Wichmann paced the scoring in the first half. His ability to drive to the basket led him to score 13 of his 18 points before the break. He also finished with seven rebounds, tying Camden Hansen for a team-high.
The Eagles stayed close with the Knights for the majority of the half, but the Knights separated with a 9-2 run in the final two minutes, capped off by a 3-pointer from Hayden Gravley, to give the Knights a 38-22 lead at halftime.
However, the Eagles weren’t done. The Knights’ offense stalled and the Eagles started making a run.
NLA began to hit outside shots with Maxwell Briggs leading the way and forcing the ball inside to Erick Reader. The Eagles outscored the Knights 27-14 to start the half and cut a 16-point deficit down to 3, 52-49. Briggs finished with a team-high 17 points, including 11 after the break, and added six rebounds. Reader had a game-high of 13 rebounds with 9 points
With the game down to one possession, the Knights took a timeout.
“First and foremost, we had to identify and cover up the ball screen,” Gravley said. “They were also getting some open threes. We just had to refocus, take a breath and relax. The guys were calm in the huddle, there was no panic. We just had to keep our composure and get back to the basics.”
The Knights came out of that timeout and wouldn’t let the Eagles score again. Free throws down the stretch would extend the lead out to 10. The crowd of Knights fans erupted as the time as the clock winded down and the Knights’ status as state champions became inevitable.
“We knew we had the capability of getting back here,” Aiden Wichmann said. “Like coach said, once we got here, anything can happen. Once we stepped out on that floor, our motto is to outwork every single team. Our fans are awesome. They show up for every game. We couldn’t ask for better fans. They cheer for us through thick and thin.”
The Knights held the Eagles to 49 points, their lowest output of the state tournament, and forced NLA to 31% shooting from the field.
Hayden Gravley anchored the Knights’ interior defense and finished with a game-high three blocks.
Drew Werkman scored 15 points on 6-11 shooting.
RTR, on the other hand, shot 48% from the field. NLA finished with more makes from beyond the 3-point line, four to RTR’s three, but attempted 24 while RTR attempted 14.
Aiden Wichmann stole the ball three times for RTR while Hayden Gravley and Werkman each came away with another two to help the Knights to a 24-5 advantage in points off turnovers.
In three state tournament games, the Knights’ defense held their opponents to an average of 56 points per game.
The Knights’ depth was a key factor in the game, as each player who checked in for RTR found a way to affect the outcome. Hayden Gravley said that the Knights have seven or eight players who are capable of coming in and playing quality minutes.
The Knights’ depth made it easy to get multiple players involved on the offensive end. In addition to Aiden Wichmann and Werkman finishing in double figures, Cody Wichmann and Hayden Gravley each contributed 7 points while Camden Hansen chipped in another six.
Aiden Wichmann finished with six assists in the game while Werkman had another three.
With the win over New Life Academy, Coach Gravley has now won a state championship as a head coach and as an assistant.
“It is really special,” Gravley said. “Ted Kern and I have been coaching together for 18 years. I can’t think of a better assistant coach to have than Kern. He is wonderful to have, great with guys and sees things really well. Great asset to our program.”
RTR finishes its season at 31-1. Their only loss was a 72-70 loss to Dawson-Boyd in the Big South Conference Championship, but the Knights redeemed themselves by beating the Blackjacks 63-55 in the Section 3A Championship to advance to the Class A playoffs.