WILLMAR -- At the final buzzer, the whoosh of air in the Cardinal gym was the collective sigh of relief Wednesday as Willmar moved on the Section 2AAA semifinal round in boys basketball.
Starting with a non-conference overtime loss to Marshall on Jan. 26, Willmar fans have seen six heart-stoppers all end up badly for their Cardinals.
This time, Willmar (17-10) hung on to eclipse Hutchinson 87-80 and advance to the Section 2AAA semifinals against Mankato West (25-1) at 6 p.m. Friday at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
Junior-heavy Hutchinson, a team more competitive than its 6-20 record indicates, trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half.
But Willmar couldn't stand the prosperity and the Tigers got within two, 81-79, with a minute left.
Here we go again?
The Tigers put up two inside shots to tie but missed both and Alec Saunders grabbed a big rebound and dished to Jordan Smith, who was fouled.
Smith drained both free throws and then four more without a miss to stretch the final margin to seven points.
Smith scored 27 points, Brian Reeves 25 and Taylor Filipek 23.
"We knew we had to finish," said Filipek, the team's offensive trigger with 15 points in the first half. "They made a run and we responded."
Filipek made repeated runs at the basket in the first half against the Tigers' triangle-and-two defense for either running layups or dishes.
Smith had a quiet first half. His consecutive three-pointers gave Willmar a 64-50 lead with 12:00 left.
"We finally finished," said the senior forward, who was 9 of 10 at the line. "We've had some rough ones here and there."
Smith nabbed 10 rebounds. Reeves grabbed 11 rebounds battling the stout Tiger forwards in what may have been the sophomore center's best game yet.
Isaiah Streed fed Reeves on a fast break with moments left but his two-hand jam didn't quite beat the buzzer.
Junior Tony Trettin's 25 points led the Tigers, who made 10 of 24 from the arc. Mason Julius, the only senior playing, was next with 16.
"We've got to step it up on defense against (Mankato) West if we're going to play with them," said senior guard Jim Neis.
Willmar outlasted the Scarlets in overtime at Gustavus last year to reach state.
Willmar 87, Hutchinson 80
Hutchinson (6-20) 40 40 -- 80
Willmar (17-10) 44 43 -- 87
HUTCHINSON - 27-60 FG (10-24 3-pt); 16-22 FT; 21 rebounds; 25 fouls ... Scoring: Mason Julius 16, Kiree Robinson 12, Joe Wheatley 5, Brad Muckenhirn 9, Jesse Brooks 7, Tony Trettin 25, Eric Thompson 6 ... 3-point shots: Julius 3, Robinson 1, Wheatley 1, Brooks 1, Trettin 4 ... Rebound leaders: not available
WILLMAR - 27-66 FG (5-13 3-pt); 28-35 FT; 30 rebounds; 18 fouls ... Scoring: Alec Saunders 3, Jim Neis 3, Jordan Smith 27, Isaiah Streed 4, Taylor Filipek 23, Ryan Filipek 2, Brian Reeves 25 ... 3-point shots: Smith 4, Filipek 1... Rebound leaders: Smith 10, Reeves 11, T. Filipek 5 ... Assist leaders: Saunders 3, Smith 3, Streed 4, Filipek 2 ... Steal leaders: Smith 2, Streed 2, T. Filipek 2 ... Blocks: Reeves 3, T. Filipek 2, Smith 2