By Robb Hemmelgarn
MINSTER -- On paper, the game should not have been close.
The St. Henry Redskins invaded Minster last night, and brought with them an average height-advantage in the paint of four inches on the Minster Wildcats.
The Redskins also entered the game on a seven-game winning streak and as of late had routinely dominated games from both inside and out. All of that, factored with two-year starter Zac Boeke's absence from the Wildcats' lineup had big-margin victory written all over it for the 13-1 and sixth-ranked team in Division III.
After posting a 17-0 run early in the first period, things looked to go exactly as planned for the Redskins.
Good thing for Minster is that games are played on the floor and not on paper. The Wildcats, powered by a relentless defense, a red-hot third quarter, and a whole lot of heart, chipped their way to a six-point lead in the third quarter, and then buried the Redskins at the free-throw line in the final period for a 49-45 victory.
"Unfortunately tonight we dug ourselves in a hole against an outstanding ball club, and we were going nowhere fast," explained Minster head coach Mike Lee. "It was very hard to simulate their size this week in practice, and tonight we didn't hit a lot of shots in the beginning. We switched some things on defense, and in the second half we took a lot of chances -- thankfully they paid off for us."
Max Phlipot opened the game for the Wildcats with a three-point bomb right off the bat to get the home crowd to their feet. For the next five minutes though, the Redskins did whatever they wanted as they dumped in 17 straight points, including six from Toby Boeckman and four from junior Andy Puthoff.
Down 17-3, the Wildcats drained a pair of three-pointers in the final minute of the period to cut their deficit to 17-9 at the conclusion of the period. The Redskins maintained their lead through the second period as the two teams commenced to the locker room at the end of the first half with the visitors in charge, 26-18.
"I felt after we went on that early run that we really lost focus," explained Redskin head coach Joe Niekamp. "We definitely had a stretch with some defensive breakdowns and communication at the end of the first quarter. It seemed to carry over into the second quarter and from there, we just couldn't get things going."
The Redskins opened the third quarter with a bucket by Kurt Huelsman, but Jake Luttmer answered with a three-pointer his next time down the floor. As it turned out, the Luttmer shot ignited an incredible period for the Wildcats in which they connected on six-of-six long balls and an astounding seven-of-eight shots from the field to take a 40-34 lead late in the quarter.
Their dead-eye shooting forced Niekamp to call timeout and switch from his zone defense to a man-to-man. The move proved beneficial as the Wildcats hit nothing from downtown the rest of the game, but the Redskins were forced to play catch up as they trailed 40-36 heading into the final quarter.
"We had good looks in the first half, but we just didn't shoot well," said Lee. "We told the kids we can't change things and just start pounding it inside, so it was a huge key tonight to be able to come out and have a third quarter like we did. It gave us confidence, and we were able to carry it the rest of the game."
The Wildcats hit one field goal in the first six minutes of the final period, but still held a one-point lead with 1:31 to play. St. Henry finally looked inside to Kurt Huelsman with just under a minute left, and his bucket gave the Redskins the lead back at 45-44.
A pair of free throws by Andrew Baumer a few seconds later gave Minster the advantage for good at 46-45. Despite only being down a point or two the remainder of the contest and with a distinct height advantage in the middle, St. Henry tried a pair of long balls to no avail, while Minster picked up some huge rebounds, forcing the Redskins to foul.
The Wildcats closed the game three-of-five at the charity stripe and held on for the four-point win.
"All-in-all we pretty much got what we deserved tonight," said Niekamp matter-of-factly. "We played extremely lackluster both mentally and physically. I give Minster a lot of credit, they took advantage of that and knocked some huge shots down and were able to carry their momentum. We had plenty of opportunities tonight to take control of the game and for whatever reasons, we were extremely careless and had very poor decision-making with the basketball."
With the win, their biggest of the season to this point, the Wildcats improved to 9-6 on the year and 4-2 in the MAC. They are back in action tomorrow night when they travel to Jackson Center to face the Tigers. St. Henry (13-2, 4-2 MAC), is back in action tonight when the fourth-ranked Russia Raiders make their way to the St. Henry Middle School.