MINNEAPOLIS - Few in Mariucci Arena probably thought the unheralded Little Falls Flyers could give the defending Class 3A state champion St. Thomas Academy Cadets a game.
Except for the Flyers.
Trailing by 18 in the first two minutes of the second half, the Flyers methodically whittled away at St. Thomas' lead before falling 59-44 in the quarterfinals of the Class 3A state tournament Wednesday night.
The Flyers' grit impressed St. Thomas coach Mike Sjoberg.
"They're a scrappy group," he said. "When they come out for warmups they don't put fear in you, but they're scrappy."
Little Falls trailed 49-38 with 5:27 remaining and had the Cadets playing an undesirable deliberate pace. St. Thomas began walking the ball up the court and waiting for layups in its half-course sets.
Little Falls Flyer Alex Scott (5) consoled Mic Wetzel (12) as he came off the floor Wednesday night with just a minute to play. The Flyers lost to St. Thomas Academy 59-44 in 3A. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"You kind of get caught," Sjoberg said. "You want the clock to run, you want them to come out and chase you so you can increase your passing lanes and your driving lanes. But we got a little bit more tentative than I would have liked."
St. Thomas point guard Fritz Waldvogel, who scored 13 points and forced six steals, said the Cadets didn't underestimate Little Falls despite its record.
"They're a tough team," he said. "They got hot at the right time and when they do that they're going to make shots and they're going to play defense. They came out and proved they can do that.
St. Thomas Academy 59, Little Falls 44
The key: Alex Schneider scored 18 points and had 15 rebounds for the Cadets.
Overall: LF finishes 14-15, StTA 23-6
Next: St. Thomas vs. Grand Rapids/Willmar winner at 8 p.m. Thursday in 3A state semifinals at Target Center, Minneapolis
"Our coaching staff right away said, 'They're 14-14 but they're a good team.' They upset St. Cloud Apollo and all those other teams, so they were beating good teams."
Second-seeded and fourth-ranked St. Thomas prevailed by outscoring the Flyers 10-6 down the stretch, primarily at the free throw line.
"We wanted to try and get into the bonus, and get (Mike Ratelle) and (Jake Szymanski) to the free throw line because we felt they would have missed," Flyers coach Kevin Jordan said. "One was shooting 47 percent, the other was in the low 50s. They did a good job of not allowing us to foul them.
"They ticked the clock a lot. We had opportunities where we could have fouled them, but we missed a couple times."
The Flyers' defense did a number on St. Thomas, limiting the Cadets to 40-percent shooting (20 of 50). They forced the Cadets to cast 20 shots from behind the arc, making just two.
What hurt Little Falls was a size disadvantage, particularly in containing the Cadets' 6-foot-7 Alex Schneider, who scored 18 points and gathered 15 rebounds. He spurred St. Thomas to a 40-24 edge on the boards.
Schneider, who's bound for Holy Cross to play football, is one of three returning starters from the Cadet's state championship team. Waldvogel and Michael Fitzgerald, who added 13 points and nine rebounds, are the others.
"This is their seventh state tournament game," Sjoberg said, "and they've won six of them. That's good experience. Alex and Fritz, they're tough."
Nick Erdrich scored 13 points and Alex Scott 12 as Little Falls finished 14-15.
"I'm proud of our kids," Jordan said. "They played with a lot of heart. They never gave up.
"Having it back down to 11 points ... we had the ball a couple times and missed a few free throws. If we could have gained a little momentum there we might have had a better chance."
In the first half the Flyers stayed close despite having only three players score, led by Erdrich's 10 points, and shooting 42 percent from the field.
The taller Cadets shot a little better (44 percent) in the first and spread their scoring around. Schneider had nine points and Waldvogel eight in the half.
"I think they were more comfortable with the first half, with the flow of the game," Jordan said of St. Thomas. "Our guys did a pretty good job frustrating them on the offensive end, better than we did in the first half."
Schneider's seven rebounds led the Cadets to a 20-9 edge on the boards in the first. St. Thomas had two eight-point runs and one six-point burst and led 31-19 at the half.
"It was like we dug too big of a hole," Jordan said of the first half.
Little Falls 1 9 25 - 44
St. Thomas Academy 31 28 - 59
Alex Scott 12, John Dunlap 0, Nick Erdrich 13, Dan Kornbaum 3, Ronnie Kornbaum 8, Ethan Mustonen 6, Eddie Wenzel 2. FG: 17-41 (41.5 percent). FT: 6-11. 3-point baskets: 4-12 (Scott, Erdrich 2, D.Kornbaum). Turnovers: 15. Rebounds: 24 (R. Kornbaum 5).
ST. THOMAS ACADEMY
Michael Fitzgerald 13, Mike Ratelle 3, Fritz Waldvogel 13, Jake Szymanski 2, Alex Schneider 18, Danny Traeger 2, Alex Scheaffer 1. FG: 20-50 (40 percent). FT: 17-26. 3-point baskets: 2-20 (Fitzgerald, Ratelle). Turnovers: 13. Rebounds: 40 (Schneider 15).
MIKE BIALKA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 855-5861.
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