This meeting was a foregone conclusion the minute Dan Kornbaum's feet hit the ground after last year's Section 8-2A final.
It was Kornbaum's dunk at the buzzer that lifted the Little Falls Flyers to the 62-60 upset victory over the St. Cloud Apollo Eagles and into the Class 3A state tournament last season.
Thursday night will be the rematch as No. 1 Apollo battles No. 2 Little Falls at St. Cloud State University.
Another Little Falls victory would be an upset as the Eagles are Class 3A's third-ranked team, own a 25-3 record and have already beat the Flyers twice this season.
But, and that's not a big but, this is the exact Flyers team, minus one starter, that pulled off last year's upset.
Little Falls Flyers senior forward Nick Erdrich (left) grabbed the ball while Brainerd's Ben Gervais defended in a Feb. 27 game. Erdrich and the Flyers are back in the Section 8-3A finals and will face top-seeded St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"That's been a huge factor down the stretch every time we go out on the floor," said Flyers coach Kevin Jordan. "We've been playing together as a team, executing well and coming together because of what we did last year at this time."
Last year at this time Little Falls didn't even own a winning record. This year its record is 17-11. During the regular season the Flyers outscored (63.4-60.2), outshot (45.6 to 42.0) and outrebounded (28.8-26.1) opponents.
Kornbaum, a junior post, leads the Flyers with 21.4 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. He's shooting 57.4 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from 3-point.
No. 1 St. Cloud Apollo Eagles vs. No. 2 Little Falls Flyers
When: 9 p.m.; Where: St. Cloud State University; At stake: A trip to the Class 3A state tournament
Flyers keys: "Seems like with us, it's always are we focused? I really think us being focused and mentally tough and playing poised is a good indication that we're playing at our best." - Little Falls head coach Kevin Jordan.
Little Falls receives 12.7 points and 3.3 rebounds a game from senior Nick Erdrich and 11.5 points and 6.4 rebounds from senior guard Ronnie Kornbaum.
Junior point guard Alex Scott is adding 6.4 points and 2.0 rebounds a game to go with 160 assists.
"Defensively, we are playing the best we have," said Jordan. "I feel our focus is better and the guys understand what we need to do. They know the keys to the game and are going out and giving it their best effort.
"Offensively, we haven't played our best basketball. We haven't shot the ball quite as good as we're capable of. I believe our percentages could be better with Dan playing more inside. We should be a higher-percentage shooting team from the field. I still feel that we could be a little bit better."
Little Falls is riding an eight-game win streak. Apollo owns a five-game spurt. Its last loss was against Class 4A's third-ranked St. Cloud Tech Feb. 19. Apollo's other two losses were to Tech and 4A's fifth-ranked Osseo.
During the teams' two Central Lakes Conference meetings this season Apollo defeated the Flyers 67-60 Dec. 12 and 81-73 in double overtime Jan. 30.
"The two teams have a better understanding of what it's going to take to defend the other team," said Jordan. "The first time you play them a lot, there's a lot of talk, but the kids don't actually believe that going into it. Until they experience it and the more times you play a team the better the players know. Then the players know better than the coaches do."
Apollo was forced into overtime by Sauk Rapids in the semifinals before pulling out the 87-78 victory. The Eagles are outscoring opponents 73.8 to 61.2 and are deep in the post, led by senior Tim Bergstraser. Andre Garth is a shut-down defender who slashed the Flyers with 30 points in their last meeting.
Apollo is also helped by sophomores Hassan Abdulkadir, Ibrahim Abukar and Blake Maslonkowski. Those three combined for 31 points in the double-overtime contest.
"The keys are a little bit different," said Jordan. "They're still a very good team inside and we need to concentrate on taking away the paint and double teaming the post to keep them off the offensive boards. Then we need to stop them from driving to the paint and finishing at the rim. That's what we're focusing on defensively."
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.
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