PARK RAPIDS -- Late-night escorts into town by emergency vehicles have become a regular occurrence for Pillager Huskies athletic teams this school year.
Last fall, escorts awaited the football team after many conquests on its way to the Prep Bowl at the Metrodome.
On Tuesday, another escort was awaiting the Huskies after they secured the first subsection boys' basketball championship in school history, defeating the explosive Nevis Tigers 73-67.
"Being second in the state for football, I think it carries over," said Pillager post player Jeff Eastman, who scored a game-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, "because you want to keep up the good work. We're trying to earn some respect in Pillager. We're finally earning it."
The Huskies (25-3) earned their 15th straight victory and a berth in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. section final at Concordia College in Moorhead despite shooting 30 percent from the field.
Pillager's accuracy was affected by the presence of 6-foot-10 Nevis center Brad Kline, who blocked an astounding 18 shots and altered the direction of countless others.
"I got stuffed by Kline three times," said Pillager forward Mark Gaalswyk, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds. "He was hard to shoot over. If he was behind you, you pretty much were not going to get a shot off. They were working hard. We were too. It was rough under there."
The rugged contest featured 36 fouls, 21 against Nevis. The game's most dramatic foul occurred with 6:26 left in the third quarter. Nevis' guard Brandt Toft banked in a 3-pointer to give the Tigers a 45-44 lead. Moments later, an official whistled him for apparently taunting the Pillager bench, his fifth foul of the contest.
"There's no way to say it wasn't," Nevis coach Bryan Wormley said when asked if the call was the game's turning point. "It absolutely was.
"Brandt gets excited. He wasn't pointing at anybody, but it's like I told him in the locker room. I understand from his perspective that he didn't think he was doing anything, but I could also see it, somewhat, from the officials' perspective, on how he could call that."
The call didn't adversely affect the Tigers. Players like Zach Smith, with a team-high 24 points, Kline (12 points), Ted Toft (12) and athletic Salum Rajabu (11) kept Nevis in the game until the final buzzer.
"For those kids to lose him, and still come back as hard and tough as they did, that was amazing," Pillager coach Jim Bentson said.
Pillager led 68-59 with 3:19 remaining when the Tigers stormed back. A Rajabu free throw, a 3-pointer and jumper by Smith and a steal by Ted Toft brought Nevis within 68-67.
With 30.1 seconds left, the Huskies' Lee Roberts sank the back end of a 2-shot free-throw situation for a 69-67 Pillager lead. Nevis missed a layup and subsequent rebound before the Huskies stole the ball from Rajabu with 14 seconds to go. Layups by Gaalswyk and Eastman in the final eight seconds iced the Huskies' victory.
"Three years ago, when (this year's seniors) were sophomores, we lost in the (subsection) semifinals," Bentson said. "Last year, we lost in the finals. For them to come out and win it, it's great for these kids to actually be where they're at."
Nevis 15 22 16 14 -- 67
Pillager 19 25 13 16 -- 73
Ted Toft 12, Zach Smith 24, Aaron Melheim 2, Brandt Toft 6, Brad Kline 12, Salum Rajabu 11. Team totals: FG 26-56 (46 percent), FT 10-17 (59 percent).
Adam Brown 12, Lee Roberts 10, Jeff Eastman 28, Bryan Kavanaugh 4, Mark Gaalswyk 17, Ben Stoll 2. Team totals: FG 24-79 (30 percent), FT 24-33 (73 percent). Overall -- 25-3. Next game: Section championship 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Concordia College, Moorhead.
3-point baskets -- N 5-9 (Smith 4, B.Toft), P 1-13 (Brown). Rebounds -- P 44 (Gaalswyk 15, Eastman 10). Turnovers -- P 13. Total fouls -- N 21, P 15. Fouled out -- B.Toft. Assists -- P 14 (Stoll 5). Steals -- P 12 (Roberts 3, Brown 3). Blocks -- P 3.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.