By T.J. Bartelt
West Central Tribune
ST. CLOUD -- What could have been a blowout turned into an exciting challenge as New London-Spicer had to hold off a determined Morris Area team for the Section 6AA boys basketball title Friday at St. Cloud State University.
The Wildcats, who are the defending state Class AA champions, will get to defend their title after toppling the Tigers 82-75. They improved to 23-8 and will face Pelican Rapids at 6 p.m. Wednesday in state quarterfinals at Williams Arena.
The Wildcats kept doing just enough in the second half each time Morris would make a run at cutting down a 50-28 halftime deficit. The Tigers got as close as eight with about three minutes left, but NLS forced Morris to foul and then made its free throws down the stretch. NLS went 12 of 16 from the foul line in the last three minutes.
"(Morris) just outworked us (in the second half)," said NLS coach Matt Cordes. "They put a lot of pressure on us and turned us over. We just held of for dear life."
"We finally caught our breath. We got the ball in our ballhandlers' hands. We were able to get some dribble penetration and some easy buckets."
"We definitely came out to the second half hot-headed. We thought it was in the bag," said New London-Spicer senior Jay Moten.
The Wildcats dominated the first half with their speed and three-point shooting. NLS kept forcing the issue by picking up the tempo and getting easy layups, or by getting the ball to their three-point shooters.
NLS was 6-for-10 from three-point range and shot 57 percent (17 of 30) from the floor. Jay Moten and Aaron Jenny sank two treys each.
Morris struggled from the floor, trying at times to match the pace set by the Wildcats. The Tigers shot only 33 percent (9 of 27) from the field and missed all five 3-point attempts.
The Tigers got back to what brought them to Halenbeck Hall in the first place -- solid defense, a patient offense and the ability to get points in the paint from the post and from driving to the basket -- to get back into the game in the second half.
Lincoln Arnold scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and Jackson Henrich had 10 of his team-high 23. Cory Hennen had all 10 of his points in the second half.
But turnovers hurt the Tigers in the last three minutes. Instead of converting on opportunities to cut into NLS lead, the Wildcats kept the late Morris run in check with the occasional fast break basket or a couple of free throws.
Erik Tengwall paced the Wildcats with 23 points. Jay Moten added 17 points, Jenny had 11, and Justin Zylstra and Aaron Johnson collected 10 apiece. Tengwall completed a double-double with 10 rebounds and also recorded seven steals. Zylstra added eight and Johnson had six.
The Tigers finished the season 23-5, the most season wins in school history.
After a slow start, the Tigers pulled within four points on Henrich's three-point play about seven minutes into the game. From that point, however, the Wildcats owned the Tigers, building their lead to 50-28 at halftime.
But the Tigers didn't fold, opening the second half with an 8-1 run and outscoring the Wildcats 25-9 in the first 11 minutes of the second half to pull within six at 59-53.
Taylor Nohl's free throw with about six minutes to play got the Tigers within five points at 59-54, but New London-Spicer's Aaron Johnson hit two foul shots and Tengwall followed with a basket that stretched the Wildcats' lead to nine points.
The Tigers' were spent at that point. Tengwall scored five straight points to give his team a 71-59 edge with about two minutes to play. The Wildcats hit 9 of 12 free throws in the final 1:48 of the game to seal the victory.
Morris Area outscored the Wildcats 47-32 in the second half and shot 64 percent from the field after the break. The Tigers held New London-Spicer without a field goal for the first five minutes of the second half and 36 percent shooting in the second half.
The Wildcats, Tigers and Montevideo represented the West Central Conference well in the postseason. Montevideo knocked off undefeated MACCRAY in the Section 3AA semifinals, then won the section title with a 64-50 win over Windom on Thursday.
The Wildcats won the rubber match in their season series with Morris Area. The Tigers defeated New London-Spicer 56-53 last month in Morris, and the Wildcats downed the Tigers in a matchup of the West Central South and North champions, 76-64, earlier this month.
NLS 82, Morris 75
Morris 28 47 -- 75
NL-Spicer 50 32 -- 82
MORRIS - 25-52 FG (3-13 3-pt); 22-34 FT; 32 rebounds; 28 fouls ... Scoring: Lincoln Arnold 14, Chris Scott 8, Jackson Henrich 23, Taylor Nohl 8, Tyler Meichsner 2, Cory Hennen 10, Corey Nohl 10 ... 3-point shots: Henrich 1, Hennen 2 ... Rebound leaders: Scott 5, Henrich 11, Nohl 6 ... Assist leaders: Hennen 2, C.Nohl 2 ... Steal leaders: T.Nohl 4.
NEW LONDON-SPICER - 22-44 FG (6-14 3-pt); 32-43 FT; 30 rebounds; 25 fouls ... Scoring: Erik Tengwall 23, Justin Zylstra 10, Aaron Johnson 10, Jay Moten 17, Jayme Moten 9, Chris Tobkin 2, Aaron Jenny 11 ... 3-point shots: Tengwall 1, Jay Moten 2, Jayme Moten 1, Jenny 2 ... Rebound leaders: Tengwall 10, Zylstra 8, Johnson 6 ... Assist leaders: Tengwall 4 ... Steal leaders: Tengwall 7.
The Morris Sun Tribune contributed to this report