It may be the marquee matchup in any class of the state boys' basketball tournament.
At 9 p.m. Friday the second-ranked and once-beaten Staples-Motley Cardinals will meet the top-ranked and unbeaten Litchfield Dragons in the Class AA semifinals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"It's the kind of game that should be in the state semifinals at 9 o'clock on a Friday night at Williams Arena," Litchfield coach John Carlson said.
The Cardinals (26-1) have won 21 straight games. Litchfield (28-0) has won 53 of its last 54 contests. Its only loss in that span was administered by Monticello in last year's Section 6, Class 3A championship game.
S-M coach Lynn Peterson and Carlson agree this matchup could be more compelling than any other at state.
"There are also two teams on the other side (of the bracket) who will have something to say about that," Peterson said. "One of the biggest challenges for the winner Friday night is going to overcome whatever happens and putting it all on the floor again 12 hours later."
The Cardinals/Dragons winner plays the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown/DeLaSalle winner 3 p.m. Saturday for the Class AA title.
"Their only loss was to the champion of the Big Nine Conference in overtime, at Rochester's home," Carlson said of S-M. "Obviously, they're a great basketball team. We have had some big wins as well. We beat Tartan (74-49) at Tartan.
"It's a couple of small schools who have had some big wins in big games against some awfully good teams."
Litchfield is arguably the best team in any class. Among its victims were Tartan, ranked second in Class 4A; Annandale, 10th in Class AA; and Watertown-Mayer, third in Class AA.
The Dragons have suppressed opponents with full-court pressure and an explosive offense. They drilled St. Cloud Cathedral 84-41 in the Class AA quarterfinals Tuesday by causing 28 turnovers. Litchfield has outscored the opposition by an average of 35 points. Its closest wins were by 14 points over Fergus Falls and Minnetonka.
Litchfield's top seven players represent three sets of brothers who are all 3-sport standouts.
Guard Alex Carlson, a 6-foot-2 senior, is a 1,000-point scorer and second-team all-state player who averages 15.3 points. He leads the team in assists and steals. His brother John, a 6-5 freshman, averages 11.3 points and leads the team in rebounding. They are sons of the head coach.
Guard Chris Patten, a 5-11 senior, averages 5.8 points, 5-10 junior Mike Patten is the leading scorer at 19.3 and 5-9 freshman Joe Patten averages 3.5 points off the bench.
The other brother act is 6-4 senior Brandon VanLiere, who averages 12.2 points, and 6-1 senior Brett VanLiere, who averages 4.4 as a reserve.
"It's not just brother to brother, it's teammate to teammate, passing and playing team defense," said Coach Carlson.
"We are fortunate to have three sets of brothers as our top seven," he added. "Our other eight players give us good looks too. There's no jealousy."
Coach Carlson said there has been little pressure despite the fact Litchfield has been ranked No. 1 all season and has received constant media attention while qualifying for its first state tournament since 1918.
"We have kids you can rely on," he said. "They come to play every game. I always tell them if we prepare the best we can, work as hard as we can and play as a team it doesn't matter what the score is at the end of the game you have won anyhow."
After struggling to beat Bagley in the Section 8AA semifinals S-M turned on the afterburners to defeat Crookston 56-45 for the section title.
On Tuesday, S-M doubled-up International Falls 68-34 in the Class AA quarterfinals. Peterson believes his team is playing its best basketball of the season.
"I feel good about the ballgame (Tuesday) night," he said. "Our defensive intensity was so much better compared to the semifinals and finals of the section. I don't think (International Falls) knew what hit them. Someone said, 'I don't think they had fun for a second (Tuesday) night.' It was constant harassment for 32 minutes."
S-M has harassed its foes into 41 percent shooting. The Cardinals outscore their foes by an average of 18 points. They shoot 50 percent from the field and 73 percent at the foul line.
They are led in scoring by 6-5 senior Dustin Hjelmeland (16.4 points) and 6-6 senior Wade Christensen (11.5). The duo averages nearly eight rebounds apiece and has blocked 53 shots between them.
Jeff Brever (5-9 junior) averages 11.2 points and 5.2 assists and leads in steals (91). Shannon Webster (5-10 senior) averages 10.8 points and Tim Rutten (5-11 senior) averages 8.2.
Top Cardinal reserves are Adam Barnett, Dan Lund and Curt Burrows.
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