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There was a bit of a bullseye painted on the back of the Cambridge-Isanti boys basketball team.
The Bluejackets entered the Class 4A Section 7 tournament as the top seed, meaning they had more than a week off before facing an opponent that already has dealt with the do-or-die pressure of winning a section tournament game.
But Cambridge-Isanti handled the pressure well, exploding to an early lead in its semifinal contest against Forest Lake and then holding off a late Ranger rally to claim a 92-75 victory at Elk River on Saturday, March 7.
“We were off for eight days, and you never know how your team is going to react,” Bluejackets coach Mike McDonald said. “Frankly, I thought we were getting a little stale in practice. … But we have guys who have ‘been-there, done-that,’ and I think that was one of the things that carried us to a win.”
So did a fast start that saw C-I roll to a quick double-digit lead that expanded to 33-16 with 7:44 still to play in the first half. The Bluejackets’ pressure defense led to multiple turnovers and a number of easy shots.
McDonald said he was pleased by his team’s work to overcome potential sluggishness and instead start quickly.
“You never know how a team is going to react to the pressure of playing the section tournament,” he said. “Do you take an opponent lightly? Are you too excited? But after the first couple of possessions we started creating turnovers, making steals and layups, and that gave us momentum. And that carried us to a nice lead in the first half.”
Cambridge-Isanti led 41-25 at halftime largely because of the strong work by the defense.
“Our defense needs to be the catalyst for our offense – and in this game, it was,” McDonald said. “We can control tempo with it, create turnovers and make steals that lead to easy baskets, and get kick-out 3’s in transition. That’s a lot easier than having to run a set offense in the half-court.”
But the game was far from over. In the second half Forest Lake started making 3-pointers and eventually cut the Bluejackets’ lead to 7 points.
“I think they made seven 3’s in the second half,” McDonald said of the Rangers. “We didn’t make as many 3’s in the second half, but we made some nice passes that led to good shots at the rim. And we made our free throws.
“I felt that, whatever they did, we found a way to counter it. And that’s the sign of great leadership by a great group of players.”
Henry Abraham led the Bluejackets with 26 points, thanks in part to a number of free throws late that held the Rangers at arm’s length.
“Cambridge-Isanti is very good; Henry makes it easier for everyone on their team to make shots,” Forest Lake coach Dan Cremisino said. “I thought we did a great job on him; most of his points came from the foul line. And it’s tough to get the ball out of his hands when it’s in his hands.”
Abraham was one of four Bluejackets to score in double figures as Connor Braaten finished with 19 points, Hunter Melander had 17 and Micah Ladd added 14.
With the victory Cambridge-Isanti advances to the Section 7 title game against No. 2 Duluth East, which held off a spirited Andover rally to beat the Huskies 54-48 in Saturday’s second game.
The contest between the Bluejackets and Greyhounds will be played Thursday, March 12, at Elk River starting at 7 p.m.
“People ask me, ‘Who would you rather play?’ And I tell them it doesn’t matter to me,” McDonald said. “It’s about our preparation, our performance. We might change matchups from game to game, but we’re not going to change what we do.
“It’s just great to have the win and be looking forward to the final.”