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Tribune photo by Tom Larson
Litchfield’s Zach Kinny makes a pass to teammate Joel Madsen (23) during the Dragons’ win over Melrose in the Section 6AA championship game Friday in St. Cloud.
Tribune photo by Tom Larson Litchfield’s Zach Kinny makes a pass to teammate Joel Madsen (23) during the Dragons’ win over Melrose in the Section 6AA championship game Friday in St. Cloud.

Boys basketball: Litchfield knocks off Melrose, heads to state

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ST. CLOUD — The stunned looks on the faces of Melrose’s faithful at halftime spoke volumes.

Wow. And not in a good way.

Litchfield played exactly the kind of game it wanted and played it to near perfection, taking a 19-point lead into the break and weathering the Dutchmen’s furious second half rally to defend its Section 6AA title, 73-59, before a packed house at St. Cloud State University’s Halenbeck Hall.

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The Dragons open the Class AA state tournament on Wednesday. State tournament seeds will be announced today.

Zach Whitchurch scored 15 of his 25 points in the first half to set the tone for the two teams’ rematch and give the Dragons a 39-20 locker room lead.

“Whitchurch had a lot to do with that,” Litchfield head coach John Carlson said. “He really wanted that. He’s a great shooter and he wanted to make sure everybody knew it. He worked hard to get open and the other guys found him.”

“My shot was on in the first half and my teammates were doing a great job getting me the ball,” Whitchurch said. “On our team, anybody can have a great night at any time. I was just the guy tonight, I guess.”

Melrose entered with a 29-1 record, the lone loss coming in overtime at Litchfield on Dec. 21. The Dutchmen, Class AA's top-ranked team, were riding a 25-game winning streak and opened the game looking like a sure bet to extend the string, scoring the game’s first six points.

But it was all Litchfield after that. The Dragons finally caught the Dutchmen seven minutes into the half, had them doubled up at 22-11 with seven minutes to play, and boosted the edge to 20 points at 34-14 with 4:30 to play.

Whitchurch hit five of his team’s eight 3-pointers and the Dragons shot 55 percent overall.

The Dutchmen ran hard into Litchfield’s stout defense, shooting just 31 percent from the field. Melrose’s Scottie Stone, a 29-point scorer headed to St. Cloud State next season, was held to 3 first-half points. He finished with 23 but hit just 7 of 25 from the field.

“We weren’t surprised (by Whitchurch),” said Melrose head coach Ryan Dusha. “We’ve seen him do that the last four years. He moves so well and he reads screens so well. And they have so many other weapons too that you can’t focus on one guy.”

Despite their miserable first-half shooting, the Dutchmen weren’t done. They pressured and trapped at halfcourt, forcing turnovers. They whittled Litchfield’s lead to five with about 1:45 to play.

“At the beginning (of the second half), we got flustered,” said the Dragons’ Zach Kinny. “They have a great fan base and they were making noise and we couldn’t communicate. But as the game went on we made some plays.”

Carlson settled his team down with a simple statement during a timeout.

“In the huddle with two minutes to go, I said, ‘If I told you last night that you would be ahead by five with two minutes to go would you take it?’ ” Carlson said. “They all said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Melrose missed a couple of point-blank opportunities to get closer and were forced to foul. The Dragons’ Riley Pater, Joel Madsen and Whitchurch made seven of eight free throws in the final minute to ice the win.

“Those free throws at the end were big,” Kinny said. “When you make your free throws you have all the confidence in the world.”

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