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Boys Basketball: Z-M boxes out Pine Island

Through the first eight games of the season, Zumbrota-Mazeppa struggled to find victories. In fact, the Cougars could not even pluralize the word, winning just one game heading into a holiday tournament in Annandale.

Since then, Z-M is 2-2, including a 62-54 victory over Pine Island Tuesday night that saw two Cougars score more than 20 points, and one tie a school record.

Jacob Ugland led Z-M with 26 points, followed closely by Ellis Hirman’s 23. And were it not for two late free throws, Hirman would have had as many points as rebounds. Alas, Hirman walked off the court with 21 boards, tying a team record held by Cody Lodermeir.

Ugland, a center, and Hirman, a forward, became the focal point of the Z-M offense in the second half, of both the game and the season.

“Our two bigs are playing real well right now,” said Z-M head coach Fred Liffrig. “A lot of that has to go to our guards, too, though. They understand where the ball needs to go right now. We’ve shot a lot of 3(-pointers) this year, and we’re not real successful. We’ve been shooting them when we need to, we hit a couple tonight and that was a big key for us. But we’re more of an inside-post game and that’s where our money is right now. Between Hirman and Ugland, everything is going great that way.”

The two post players were more than great through the first seven minutes of the second half. A 28-27 lead at halftime turned into a 45-32 lead as Hirman and Ugland combined to score 14 of the Cougars’ first 16 points of the second half. And that was with Pine Island’s Luke Thornton patrolling the paint.

The Panthers’ big forward did a lot of damage offensively as well, but not as much as he could have as Hirman and Ugland, until he fouled out late in the game, forced Pine Island’s post presence into foul trouble.

“We knew we were going to have some problems with Thornton inside, he’s just a big load. He gets it done one way or the other,” Liffrig said. “At halftime, we had them in foul trouble a little bit … so we pounded it inside a little bit more.”

By the time the Cougars began shooting late-game free throws, Pine Island was in more than foul trouble, the Cougars were losing players left and right. Thornton was the second of three Panthers to take a seat with five fouls. At the time, the Z-M lead was just four points. But Hirman went 4 of 4 from the free throw line in the final 22.5 seconds to seal the victory.

“He’s averaging a double-double, something like 14-15 points and 11 rebounds,” Liffrig said. “One of the things the kids have bought into is that we won’t be outworked, and we won’t be out-rebounded. That’s where we’re at right now. And every time we need a big basket, we seem to get it right now … It’s kind of fun for us right now.”

The Cougars’ enjoyment continues Friday with a trip to Lake City, followed by a Tuesday visit to Goodhue.