Right now, no team is hotter than the Mesabi Range Norse men's basketball team.
And, unfortunately for the Central Lakes College Raiders, Mesabi is their semifinal opponent in this weekend's Region 13 tournament at CLC.
The Norse won last weekend's Minnesota Community College Conference state tournament in convincing fashion, beating the third-ranked team in Division III, the Minneapolis Marauders, in the quarterfinals. They beat Vermilion in the championship game to earn the wild card spot in the region.
CLC is ready to forget about its two losses at state and rekindle the magic that helped the Raiders win 13 straight games and the North Division title.
"In practice this week guys were all over yelling and screaming," Raiders coach Jim Russell said. "That tells me we've got our hungriness and emotion back. What we learned from last weekend is that we can't go through the motions and expect to win."
Mesabi (18-9) and the Raiders (20-6), who play 8 p.m. Friday, are not strangers. CLC defeated the Norse twice this season, 82-69 on Jan. 13 at CLC and 90-83 at Mesabi on Feb. 18.
Russell realizes that a team with confidence, and as many athletic players as the Norse have, can be dangerous.
"Mesabi is a very athletic ballclub," said Russell. "They have some very good basketball guys that can create their own shots and they're well coached. They have a lot of confidence coming in. I'm sure losing twice to us this season will be fuel for them."
Region 13 tournament
Raiders vs. Mesabi
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Friday at CLC
Mesabi boasts a tall lineup, especially at guard where Alex Maas and Courtney Davis are both 6-foot-4. Davis leads the Norse in scoring at 18 points a game while 6-5 center James Nobles averages 14 points and 10 rebounds.
CLC will try to pick apart Mesabi's 2-3 zone by going inside to forwards Mike Pater, Chris Metcalf and the team's leading scorer, Leonard Langdon, who averages 13.1 points.
But Russell is more intent on having his team play the style of basketball that helped the Raiders rattle off 13 straight wins. And, defense will be a big part of that.
"We just need to focus on what got us here and that's the little things," Russell said. "We need to take care of the basketball, set good screens and set teammates up. We need to put out our best effort on defense and trust each other to rotate and help out."
The Fergus Falls Spartans (22-6) will take on the Milwaukee Area Technical College Stormers (23-7), the Wisconsin Junior College Conference champion, 6 p.m. Friday.
The Spartans took third at the MCCC state tournament. A big reason Fergus Falls is playing so well is the emergence of its bench.
"Fergus is a lot better now because they have a bigger bench," said Russell. "Their freshmen have stepped up and played well and they're really understanding what to do in their system. Everything is clicking for them right now."
Russell admits he doesn't know much about the Stormers, but he isn't about to look past them.
"If you win 20 or more games you've done something right," Russell said. "I imagine they're pretty athletic and that they put up a lot of shots."
Russell and his team like the fact the tournament will be played in their gym in front of their fans. But he knows no one is ready to hand them a free pass to the national tournament.
"The teams that wins this tournament is the one playing really well together," Russell said, "Fergus and Mesabi are doing that right now. For us to win it we'll have to put in that extra effort."
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