ST. CLOUD — For the first 11 minutes the Brainerd Warriors had the Moorhead Spuds on the ropes in the Section 8-4A semifinals Saturday.
Then Aaron Lien and the fifth-seeded Spuds’ size took over and their defense stiffened as Moorhead went on to an 81-57 win over No. 8 Brainerd at St. Cloud State University’s Halenbeck Hall.
Lien, a wiry 6-4 lefty, scored 20 points in the first half and finished with a game-high 31 on an assortment of jump shots and drives to the hoop. He shot 9 for 14 in the first and finished 13 of 19.
“He’s probably the best player we’ve faced all year, as far as being able to get to the rim, and pull up and shoot,” Warriors coach Scott Stanfield said. “Without his first half I think we had them on the ropes. We played a stretch of basketball that was probably the best we can play, but they answered that and caught us in the first half.”
Spuds coach Corey Zimmerman called Lien “a special player.”
“You don’t get too many guys that come along that have the ability to post up, handle the ball, shoot the three, and he’s got a great in-between game” Zimmerman added. “He just makes it a difficult matchup for guys.
“We had some real solid balance. The guys were ready to play, ready to shoot. It’s a testament to them for getting themselves going, inside, outside, doing it all. When you shoot that well, like we did today, it’s difficult (to defend).”
Post Camden Bosche complemented Lien by scoring 11 of his 14 points in the second half. Point guard Matt Ellingson added 13 and 6-5 Austin Nelson 10 as Moorhead advanced to the section final.
The Spuds shot a sizzling 59 percent (29 of 49) from the field. Brainerd started out on fire, shooting 53 percent in the first (10 of 19) but cooled off in the second, making only 10 of 23 (43 percent). After making 7 of 11 threes in the first the Warriors were 0 for 6 in the second.
To make matters worse, Moorhead dominated the glass, grabbing 32 rebounds to the Warriors’ 16. The Spuds scored 17 second-chance points to Brainerd’s one. Brainerd managed one offensive rebound.
In the first, the Warriors aggressively drove to the rim, hit their threes and streaked to leads of 8-4 and 27-16 before Lien became virtually unstoppable. His sniping helped Moorhead shoot 15 of 27 (56 percent) in the first.
An 11-point burst near the end of the first enabled Moorhead to tie it 27-27 with four minutes left. The Spuds ended the first on a 7-point run and a 34-30 lead before outscoring Brainerd 47-27 in the second.
Jack Sauer scored 10 of his 14 points in the first to lead Brainerd. Jacob Blong came off the bench to make 4 of 5 shots and finish with 11 points. Blake Peterson added nine, also off the bench.
Brainerd finishes 14-13 after its first section semifinal appearance since 2001 and its first above .500 record since 2006-07.
“We had a lot of firsts this year,” Stanfield said. “Coming off a 4-22 season, to be where we’re at, I’m real happy with the kids for that.”
Three starters return next season (Jack Sauer, Marcus Comstock and Jagr Hanson) and four others who played extensively (Tony Sauer, Ian Haug, Chris Bowman and Blong).
“Definitely, without a doubt, this was the best basketball experience I’ve ever had,” Warriors senior guard Tommy Olson said. “The coaches did a great job, my teammates did a great job. Nobody ever pointed fingers at anyone the whole year.
“You can tell Brainerd basketball is starting to shift from last year, 4-22, to this year 14-13, which is a pretty drastic change.
“They’re going to be dangerous next year. The big thing with them is experience. A lot of them got in to a lot of games this year, which was good to see.”
Olson isn’t the only one who believes Brainerd’s future is bright.
“Those guys will be a fun team to watch next year,” Zimmerman said. “Their core is coming back. They’re going to be dangerous. I would almost imagine they will be one of the top teams in our section.”
Brainerd 30 27 — 57
Moorhead 34 47 — 81
Jack Sauer 14, Tommy Olson 3, Riley Kline 7, Marcus Comstock 5, Jagar Hanson 0, Blake Peterson 9, Tony Sauer 6, Jacob Blong 11, Gunner Askegaard 2. FG 20-42 (48 percent). FT 10-16. 3-point baskets: 7-17. Turnovers: 13.
Matt Ellingson 13, Aaron Lien 31, Austin Nelson 10, Judd Roesler 6, Camden Bosche 14, Cody Dorrow 3, Hayden Anderson 2, Tanner Swenson 2. FG 29-49 (59 percent). FT 19-31. 3-point baskets: 4-11. Turnovers: 8.
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.