The Mayer Lutheran basketball team has been a fun one to watch over the last 2 years with a high-powered offense that rains three-pointers and slams home alley oops. Yet Monday night was an example of why the Crusaders don't want to be known for their offensive prowess.
The Crusaders nearly forced 2 turnovers in the final minute against the No. 10 ranked Warriors before timeouts saved BOLD from losing the ball. And with 11.6 seconds and 1.6 seconds left, the Crusaders met in the huddle to gameplan against a sharpshooting team that had the ball with a chance to win the game.
“I said it in the huddle - I said, 'What's our identity?'” coach Pat Buchanan said. “Defense – I wrote it on the board - I said if this is our identity right here, then right now is the time to do it.”
The Warriors put up a shot down 57-56 as the buzzer rang, but the shot hit off the rim and fell to the side as the Crusaders erupted in celebration.
“When he put it up, I felt pretty much every emotion you could imagine in a matter of 2 seconds,” Kobey Woolhouse said. “Then it came off the front of the rim and it was just pure joy.”
BOLD had been hitting from the perimeter all game despite a solid defensive outing for the Crusaders, so the Warriors had what they wanted – the ball in their star player's hands with a chance to win it.
“I thought it was going to drop – he is a good player, he hit a lot of shots earlier in the game,” Baden Noennig said.
The packed stands held their collective breath as the outcome of the Section 2A Semifinal game hung in the balance.
“Oh, it looked like it was dropping man,” Buchanan said. “And somehow the wind blew it off the rim. I'm still trying to take it in right now, but it was great. I loved it.”
Mayer Lutheran's defense came up big in the clutch, though it was a stellar effort from the opening tip.
“I told my team and I told my coaches, 'If we hold them under 60 points, we win this game. [It was] 57-56, we won this game and it was [because of] defense.”
The statistic on how many steals Mayer Lutheran had in the game was unavailable as of print, but it was likely in the double digits – as Kobey Woolhouse had three in the first 2 minutes of the game. The Takeaways kept coming as Branden Carlson scored several times on the break after pick-pocketing the ball handler.
“That's our identity,” Woolhouse said. “Coach preaches it - we have to lock down on defense. I think that showed.”
The Crusader offense has been strong in the last 2 years, but they have really worked hard on defense during the 2017-18 campaign.
“It shows what we've been working for all season,” Garrett Tjernagel said of the defensive win. “This team is a complete turnaround from last season.”
“Last year we were all offense, now were mostly defense,” added Noennig.
The defense has been the focus all season, but that doesn't mean the offense has suffered. After trailing for much of the first half and by as much as nine, the Crusaders battled back with a potent offensive attack. In the final minutes, Tjernagel scored six points with an unstoppable post game, while Woolhouse found openings off of the dribble to score a couple buckets to draw Mayer Lutheran within two points at the break.
The high-flying Crusaders made their appearance in the second half, as Mayer Lutheran drew up one of their alley oop plays and executed it to perfection.
“We practiced that a few days ago, but I didn't think it would turn out like that,” Branden Carlson said. “That was the best possible result.”
Carlson took the ball and lofted it to the rim, where Noennig slammed it home to start the second half with a bang.
“That was just executed perfectly,” Noennig said. “A great pass by Branden.”
“Oh my gosh, [Branden Carlson] is so good at that,” said Tjernagel, who is often the other recipient of Carlson's alley oop passes.
Buchanan said he wanted a spark to start the second half, and get got exactly what he wanted.
“You know how I like to come out,” Buchanan said with excitement. “I said, 'We have to get going.' I asked the coaches, 'Do I go with Garrett or do I go with Baden?” They said to go with Baden and there it is. That's fabulous. I love when we can do stuff like that. It gets the fans in it, it gets the crowd in it, and the guys like it. It's basketball - you're supposed to have fun with it.”
The crowd responded as the near capacity attendance at Gustavus Adolphus was spurred on in the second half.
“That was electric out there,” Buchanan said. “We needed that electric crowd to help us get back into this game. We needed that crowd to help us out and they did that for us.”
To the Warriors' credit, they would not back down. After big momentum plays from the Crusaders, BOLD would simply respond with their own. Buchanan praised the Warriors after the game and consoled several of the opposing players after the loss.
“That is a gritty team, that is a great team,” Buchanan said. “Those young guys are going to be here again - multiple years. They are fabulous players and I'm always going to tip my hat off to fabulous players like that.”
Basketball is normally a game of runs, but two unflappable teams threw that cliché out the window. BOLD held a narrow lead for much of the game, forcing the Crusaders to constantly keep pace.
“Just trust the guy next to you to do his job,” Tjernagel said of trying to battle back. “As long as you do your job and they do theirs, you'll be fine.”
That trust helped Mayer Lutheran overcome an eight-point deficit in the final quarter of the game to give the Crusaders their second lead of the game with under 2 minutes to play (the first was a 6-2 lead to start).
Brendan Feltmann scored off the dribble and Tjernagel converted in the post to get things going. Following a three-pointer from BOLD, Carlson took over. The senior guard grabbed and offensive rebound before hitting a three-pointer later in the possession. He then stole the ball and earned a trip to the free throw line after getting fouled on the fast break.
“[Branden is] our general out there,” Woolhouse said. “If things aren't going too well, he will take charge and calm everyone down and get us going. I always look up to him to calm me down and get us going.”
Down two with 3 minutes left, Noennig and Tjernagel worked down low for six points to knot the game at 54-54 with 2 minutes to go.
Following a score from BOLD, Tjernagel cut to the rim and was fouled, though he made the shot for the and-one opportunity. With 1:11 to play, the senior calmly hit a free throw that would be the game winner, thanks to the defensive effort.
The same defense that was good enough to hold the top-10 ranked No. 2 seed to only eight points in the final minutes, was good enough to keep the Warriors off of the board in the final 40 seconds, the final 11.5 seconds and the final 1.6 seconds.
“I know I was doing my job, and I trusted them to do their job - I wasn't worried,” Tjernagel said of the final sequence. “But in my mind I was like, 'Please miss, that would be great.'” he said with a laugh.
The shot clanged off the iron and sent Mayer Lutheran onto the Section 2A Championship game.
“It was a team victory, we never gave up,” Matt Menth said. “We were down for pretty much most of the game. We never gave up, we battled back and stayed with it the whole time and everyone contributed. Even players on the bench - they were loud the whole time pumping guys up. It was a great team victory.”
The Crusaders now move on to face No. 1 ranked Springfield March 16 at Minnesota State University – Mankato.