Physically, the Brainerd Warriors boys' basketball team probably didn't belong on the court with the St. Cloud Apollo Eagles.
Apollo, ranked fourth in Class 4A in the preseason, had four players towering from 6-foot-9 to 6-3, one of whom weighed at least 250 pounds.
But that didn't deter the smaller, scrappier, more determined Warriors as they outplayed Apollo in virtually every aspect of the game on their way to a thrilling 55-51 Central Lakes Conference victory Thursday.
Unbeaten Brainerd, ranked ninth in 4A, relied on 51-percent shooting from the field and stifling defense that limited the Eagles to 46-percent shooting.
The Warriors confined two of Apollo's marquee players, 6-9 Jonathan Williams, who will play at Division I St. John's (N.Y.) University next year, and 6-3 Brett Carmichael to a combined 22 points. Williams had 13 points, including two spectacular dunks.
Apollo's 6-7 Mark Kruse led all scorers with 22 points.
"We came in this week thinking they're like anybody else we play," said Brainerd's Justin Mueller, who along with teammate Jake Phillips led Brainerd with 14 points. "They have lots of talent on their team, and we know they can score. We had to come in and have a big defensive game, and we did."
Warriors coach Matt Urbanek thought Mueller and fellow post players Bryce Cloutier, Jase Renneke and Mike Brocker had outstanding games rebounding and playing defense. Brainerd outrebounded the Eagles 28-22.
"I think the key to the game was we were willing to play hard and play defense," Urbanek said. "A lot of high school players don't want to do that. A lot of guys want to shoot the three and dunk the ball, but there aren't a lot of players willing to work hard on the defensive end. I'm proud of everybody on our team for how they've made that commitment."
Brainerd was committed to victory. It got off to a rousing start, rolling to a 16-2 lead as the Eagles missed their first six shots and were scoreless for three minutes.
Apollo recovered in the second quarter, outscoring the Warriors 21-8 for a 28-26 halftime edge.
In the third quarter, the Warriors regrouped and seized a 41-40 lead at the break.
With 4:06 left in the final quarter, Brainerd nabbed the lead for good, 48-46, on Mueller's arching putback. The Warriors gave themselves room in the last 70 seconds on a Tuchscherer tip-in, Phillips free throw and Cloutier layup.
"I thought our guards, Derek Levno, Tuchscherer and Phillips, did a good job late in the game, playing with a lot of composure," Urbanek said. "They made the right decisions. I thought our guards played a real smart game."
Brainerd is 5-0 heading to the Tartan tournament Dec. 26-28.
"This is huge," Mueller said. "Going into the tournament 5-0, we can do some good things."
Mueller added five rebounds and blocked three shots.
"Justin really asserted himself in this game," Urbanek said. "We know he has the ability to do that and tonight he showed that."
St. Cloud Apollo 7 21 12 11 -- 51
Brainerd 18 8 15 14 -- 55
Brian Jacobson 1, Mark Kruse 22, Jeff Dube 4, Jonathan Williams 13, Brett Carmichael 9, Adam Murphy 2. Team totals: FG 21-58 (36 percent), FT 6-13 (46 percent). Conference -- 1-2. Overall -- 2-3.
Derek Levno 6, Justin Mueller 14, Paul Tuchscherer 9, Jake Phillips 14, Bryce Cloutier 8, Jase Renneke 4. Team totals: FG 23-45 (51 percent), FT 5-10 (50 percent). Conference -- 4-0. Overall -- 5-0. Next game: At Tartan tournament 8 p.m. Dec. 26
3-point baskets -- SCA 3-12 (Kruse 3), B 4-14 (Mueller, Tuchscherer 2, Phillips). Fouled out -- Kruse. Rebounds -- SCA 28, B 22 (Phillips 6, Mueller 5). Turnovers -- B 11. Steals -- B 6. Blocks -- B 3 (Mueller 3). Assists -- B 15 (Phillips 6, Levno 5).
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