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Boys Basketball: Lake City dodges Z-M comeback, St. Charles next

ROCHESTER – On the heels of an overtime game, Lake City and Zumbrota-Mazeppa battled for a spot in the Section 1AA semifinals on Monday. The Cougars battled back from a 12-point deficit to take a four-point lead with less than seven minutes to play.

But the third-seeded Tigers executed down the stretch to win 64-59, setting up a showdown with second-seeded St. Charles on Saturday.

“That's this time of the year. Those are the kind of games you're going to get,” said Lake City head coach Greg Berge, who watched the Saints get taken to overtime by Plainview-Elgin-Millville before the Tigers took the floor.

“I told the guys that in order to make a run, you have to win tough games like this where maybe you're not playing your best,” Berge said. “The habits that you create over the season are the ones that show up in a game like this that is really emotional and tense. And for us, this is how we've played all year. We're able to hold the ball, hit some big shots late, make some free throws down the stretch. That's our M.O.”

Lake City hit big shots early, too, taking a 19-9 lead on a Nathan Heise 3-pointer with 11:25 left in the first half. At 8:41, the lead grew to 26-14 after a Reid Gastner layup, and it appeared the Tigers would waltz to the weekend.

But Z-M head coach Fred Liffrig tweaked his defense, forcing Lake City further from the 3-point arc. And along with a big game from forward Alex Guse, the Cougars came charging back to take a 50-46 lead with 6:54 left in the game.

“We went to a different defense, to a half-court trap. We didn't try to trap out of it so much, we were just trying to back them up out of their comfort zone,” Liffrig said. “We made our run and got it back to a good ball game in the first half.”

The Tigers led 34-33 at halftime, but could have been down as Robvon Jackson had a layup at the buzzer spin out. That 19-8 run to close out the first 18 minutes was a game-changer for Z-M.

“Our kids adjusted. We talked about how mentally tough we had to be. We talked about how this would be a game of runs, and it was,” Liffrig said. “We even had a four-point lead in the second half. Our effort was there, our intensity level was there. It was just two good basketball teams. That speaks volumes about the HVL.”

Much of the comeback was led by Jacob Niebuhr and Guse, who finished with 15 and 19 points, respectively.

“In situations like this, your best players need to step up. They're both all-conference players. Along with Isaiah Nolte, that's three good players,” Liffrig said. “We just didn't make enough shots, and we missed a couple bunnies and a couple of free throws. It was just two neck-and-neck teams.”

Nolte had 12 points, and was a perfect 5 of 5 from the free-throw line, something that Lake City would be able to do late to seal the victory by hitting 8 of 9 in the final 1:06.

“We got in a little foul trouble and protected some kids in the first half, so we had some matchups on the court based on what they were doing defensively that made it a little harder. We weren't able to do some of the things we wanted to do,” Berge said. “But we battled to halftime. And in the second half, we moved the ball well and buckled down on defense.”

Marc Kjos led the Tigers with 21 points, including five 3-pointers and a 6 of 6 showing at the stripe, all of which came in the final 69 seconds. Heise finished with 15, and Gastner 14, to set up the rematch with St. Charles. On Feb. 4, the Saints (22-6) beat the Tigers (21-6), 78-67, in Lake City.

Kyle Stevens
Kyle Stevens is a sports reporter for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, Kyle worked at the Owatonna People’s Press, as well as KWLM and KLFN in Willmar. You can contact Kyle by phone at (651) 301-7879, via e-mail at, and follow him on Twitter @RE_KStevens.
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