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Boys basketball: Litchfield calmly secures another reservation for state tournament

(Tribune photo by Tom Larson) Members of the Litchfield Dragons boys basketball team celebrate as they hoist up the Section 6AA championship plaque after beating top-ranked Melrose 73-59 Friday at Halenbeck Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State University.

St. Cloud State’s Halenbeck Hall was bedlam Friday night in the closing minutes of the Section 6AA boys basketball championship game.

The Melrose side was freaking out. The surging Dutchmen needed just a couple more buckets to cap a comeback from a 19-point halftime deficit.

The Litchfield side was nervously biting nails, imploring their defending section champ Dragons to hang on for just a few more minutes.

The Melrose bench was pumped, Litchfield’s was, strangely, fairly calm.

The Dragons had run in these shoes before.

“We never thought for a second that this was going to be an easy game and it certainly wasn’t,” said Litchfield guard Zach Kinny, whose team led by as many as 20 points in the first half, staved off the Dutchmen’s charge to win the section title for a second straight year, 73-59, and earned a spot in the Class AA state tournament beginning Wednesday.

“I’m not surprised by our guys,” Litchfield head coach John Carlson said. “The league (the Wright County Conference) we play in prepares us for big games and prepares us to play against really good teams, and Melrose is one of the best that we’ve played.”

Litchfield, which opens the state tournament Wednesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis at 6 p.m. against Redwood Valley (24-5) handed the 29-2 Dutchmen their only two losses of the year and both times Melrose was Class AA’s No. 1 team. But the big-game Dragons have grown accustomed to tangling with towering talents the last two years and succeeding.

Litchfield (24-5) is 50-11 the last two seasons and is 6-1 in the postseason, with the only loss coming in last season’s Class AA championship game. In last year’s section title game, the Dragons tipped off against a Long Prairie-Grey Eagle team that was 25-2 and won by 17 points.

The Dragons’ five losses this season have come by a total of 16 points and since Jan. 1 they are 19-3, with all three losses coming by one point. Four of the five teams to defeat them this year won between 19 and 23 games. Two came against Class AAA teams and the three Class AA schools to beat them had a combined 62-23 record.

Annandale, this year’s Section 5AA champion, lost to Litchfield twice this season, by three points and 11 points. Delano (26-3), which will play in the Class AAA state tournament this week, lost to Litchfield by 11 points on Feb. 1.

The Dragons are one tough out.

“They played great,” Melrose head coach Ryan Dusha said after Friday’s game. “They were the defending champions and we knew they were not going to give it up easily.”

The road ahead won’t get smoother but Litchfield knows how to navigate a tough slog.

In last year’s state semifinals game against Perham, the Dragons prevailed 33-31 in a game in which both teams combined to score 23 second-half points.

Against Melrose on Friday, the Dragons led 39-20 at the break and still held a 17-point edge with seven minutes left when a Scottie Stone three-point play ignited an 18-6 Dutchmen run that made it 62-57 with about 2:30 left. But Melrose made just 1 of 6 field goals the rest of the way and Litchfield hit 9 of 10 free throws down the stretch.

“We have a long ways to go,” Kinny said. “We have three more games we’re trying to win and they’re all great teams that are still in it. We have to play our style of ball if we’re going to win.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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