Two weeks ago the Brainerd Warriors boys' basketball team was on the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the Section 8, Class 4A tournament.
Brainerd was riding high with a 13-6 record, having won five of six games.
That was before successive losses to St. Cloud Apollo, Rocori, Sauk Rapids and Alexandria, diminishing Brainerd's chance for a first-round bye.
A 51-41 non-conference victory over the Staples-Motley Cardinals on Saturday has resuscitated the Warriors' hope for the second seed. A victory in Tuesday's final regular-season game at home against St. Cloud Tech probably will give Brainerd (14-10) an opening-round bye.
"We needed to win this game, rebuild our confidence a little bit and gain some momentum going into the Tech game," Warriors coach Matt Urbanek said. "The Tech game is very important."
Defense played an important role in Brainerd's first victory over S-M since the series resumed in the 1998-99 season. The Warriors limited S-M to 38 percent shooting (14 of 37) from the field.
But the Cardinals were their worst enemies as they failed to capitalize at the foul line, making only 44 percent of their attempts (11 of 25).
The Warriors' Justin Mueller restricted S-M's leading scorer, Josh Smith, to two points. Senior starters Nick Doll, Aaron Kelly and Landon Thompson scored 14 points between them.
Freshman Josh Anderson was the only Cardinal in double digits with 14 points.
"We had kids that didn't play very hard," S-M coach Lynn Peterson said. "When you're not playing hard, and not into the game, everything goes. Your free throws go, you're starting to guess, 'Did I shoot it short? Did I shoot it long.'
"I was really looking forward to this game. It meant nothing so let's go out, play hard and have fun. I guess the thing I was most disappointed about is that most of what you would consider to be our leaders probably were the ones, they didn't carry the energy. They drug us down. I thought our younger kids probably played the leadership and energizing roles."
Brainerd was energized by an all-around team effort. Mueller slashed his way to the basket for a game-high 18 points as he made 7 of 11 shots. Jake Phillips contributed 16 points as he sank 6 of 12 attempts. And, Derek Levno added 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting.
"I thought we made good decisions, offensively," Urbanek said. "We had a lot of guys that stepped up and made contributions."
As poorly as S-M shot, it had a chance to win. The Cardinals trailed only 47-39 with about 90 seconds left as Anderson provided six points and Zach Johnson came off the bench to contributed six more.
In the final 65 seconds, Phillips and Bryce Cloutier each drained two free throws around an Anderson layup to secure the Warriors' victory.
"You have to give Staples a lot of credit," Urbanek said. "There were some times when I thought we had them on the ropes and they just wouldn't go away. They kept battling back and battling back and they made a game out of it at the end. I think that's a credit to how hard they play."
Staples-Motley 10 4 14 13 -- 41
Brainerd 9 15 13 14 -- 51
Nick Doll 4, Aaron Kelly 6, Landon Thompson 4, Josh Smith 2, Josh Anderson 14, Joe Smith 5, Zach Johnson 6. Team totals: FG 14-37 (38 percent), FT 11-25 (44 percent). Overall -- 12-10. Next game: Thursday at Pelican Rapids.
Derek Levno 10, Paul Tuchscherer 1, Jake Phillips 18, Bryce Cloutier 4, Justin Mueller 16, Jase Renneke 2. Team totals: FG 19-44 (43 percent), FT 9-14 (65 percent). Overall -- 14-10. Next game: vs. St. Cloud Tech 6 p.m. Tuesday
3-point baskets -- SM 2-10 (Kelly, Thompson), B 4-15 (Phillips 4). Rebounds -- B 29 (Mueller 7, Phillips 6), SM 25 (Kelly 7). Turnovers -- SM 14, B 17. Assists -- Phillips 6. Blocks -- Mueller 2, Cloutier 2.
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