WOODBURY — Stillwater used a familiar formula to keep its state tournament hopes alive while dispatching top-seeded Roseville 78-65 in the Section 4AAAA boys’ basketball semifinal on Saturday at East Ridge High School.
The fourth-seeded Ponies showed patience on offense while holding a strong rebounding edge and outscoring Roseville 22-6 at the free throw line to upend the Suburban East Conference co-champs.
Stillwater (22-6) advances to face No. 2 seed Woodbury in Wednesday’s section finals at East Ridge. The Royals (24-4) held off Mahtomedi 91-85 in Saturday’s other semifinal game. The Ponies split with Woodbury this seasons, posting an 88-71 win on Jan. 4, but falling 56-55 at SAHS on Feb. 8.
“I think right now we’re playing as well as anybody,” Ponies coach Randy Jordan said. “I just thought the kids did a great job. Our senior kids seem to be focused and we’ve got one more game. They’re going to enjoy this one, but they know the one they want is coming Wednesday.”
Joe Quinn continued his strong play down the stretch for the Ponies, dropping in a team-high 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. The high-flying senior dunked three times in the second half and finished with six blocked shots.
“He’s been amazing,” Jordan said of Quinn. “If he’s controlling the boards for us, if he’s rebounding, we’re a much better basketball team. He’s done that so much the last few games.”
It was part of a balanced effort for Stillwater, which received 10 or more points from five different players. Aaron Romportl tossed in a season-high 18 points and joined Sam Lagus in providing a solid defensive effort against Roseville’s most dangerous players Mackenzie Johnson and Kobe Critchley. Andrew Duxbury and Matt Anderson added 14 and 11 points for the Ponies and Lagus finished with 10.
Romportl hit two 3-pointers and scored on several hard drives to the basket, including some of each while scoring seven points in the first eight minutes of the second half to help Stillwater open up a 47-31 lead with 10 minutes remaining.
“Rom has been steady pretty much all year, he really has,” Jordan said. “He was hurting in practice (Friday), he gets banged up because he goes so hard that his body just aches. He felt better today and he’s a competitor.”
The teams remained close throughout much of the first half, but Stillwater used a 14-2 run to claim a 33-22 lead at the break. Quinn was held scoreless through the first 13 minutes of the game, but got on track with a rebound putback and scored seven straight points during a two-minute stretch to help the Ponies build a 10-point lead.
Led by Johnson, who scored 45 points in a 86-45 quarterfinal victory over North St. Paul, Roseville is a team that can score points in bunches. Johnson, who finished with a game-high 27 points, hit three straight 3-pointers and Critchley added another during a two-minute stretch midway through the second half as the Raiders pulled within 52-43.
“We needed to definitely shut down Johnson,” Jordan said. “We couldn’t let him get on a roll — he had 45 the other night. That, and we wanted to take the ball out of Critchley’s hands because he sets everything up for them.”
The scoring outburst was short-lived, however, as Stillwater answered with a 12-2 run to build a 64-45 lead.
“We knew that and we told the kids these guys are going to make a run at you the second half, we just have to answer them and do the best we can,” Jordan said. “I told them we’re probably going to come back and be behind for a second, but we can’t quit, they’re just that good of a team.”
A victory over Roseville, much less a convincing one, did not seem likely after the Raiders routed Stillwater 74-54 on Jan. 11. The Ponies gained some much-needed momentum after returning the favor with a 68-52 victory over Roseville on Feb. 15 in what was the second game of their current nine-game winning streak.
“They’re a very good team and they’ve got a lot of basketball talent,” Jordan said. “I keep thinking back to the first game we played them and I didn’t know if we’d ever come close to them, but these guys…. what a senior bunch we’ve got. (The win in the second game) was huge. That we went over there and dominated like we did told us a lot about our team. I just think our kids really rose to the next level because of that game.”
Stillwater’s 36-16 rebounding edge was a big key on Saturday and that is an area the Ponies have been solid all season.
“Our biggest thing was getting ahead of them,” Jordan said. “Our major focus was making sure we controlled the boards. (Jordan) Burich is an animal on the basketball and our kids knew it, but Joe and Matt did a great job after the first four or five minutes. I thought they really made him bang and made him pay for every rebound that he got. I was very proud of the way they did that. I thought if we controlled the boards we’d be in good shape.”
Stillwater’s patient offense and emphasis on working the ball into the post also paid off with its trips to the free throw line in a game where the officials were not necessarily quick with the whistles.
“It’s been that way the last 10 games,” Jordan said of the free throw margin. “We just put the ball in the situation where we’re putting pressure on the basket. We’re doing it slowly, but the kids are learning we need to get the ball to the paint and get to the basket and I think we’ve done it well.”
Stillwater 33 45 — 78
Roseville 22 43 — 65
Stillwater (pts): Sam Lagus 10, Aaron Romportl 18, Andrew Duxbury 14, Tony Lennox 3, Joe Quinn 20, Matt Anderson 11 and Joel Malwitz 2.
Roseville: Mackenzie Johnson 27, Ben Farmer 2, Logan Brown 8, Evan Kacmarynski 3, Kobe Critchley 15, Jordan Burich 3, Jacques Perra 5 and Lance Gardner 2.
3-pointers: St (6): Anderson, Lagus 2, Romportl 2 and Lennox; Ros (11): Perra, Johnson 7, Critchley, Brown and Kacmarynski.
Free throws: St, 22-31; Ros, 6-10.
Fouls: St, 10; Ros, 23.
Fouled out: Ros, Lance Gardner, Logan Brown and Jordan Burich.
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org