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Wingers defense suffocates Tigers

DonTray Johnson (10) secures the rebound and looks to push the ball up the court as Red Wing faced Albert Lea on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Jake Pfeifer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
Play on the boards was pivotal as both Red Wing and Albert Lea attempted to deploy defensive strength in their matchup Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Jake Pfeifer / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
DonTray Johnson found success driving the ball to the basket once Albert Lea's zone defense opened up. Jake Pfeifer / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Carson Nystuen (5) pushes the ball up the court. Fast breaks and points in transition were a big part of the Wingers success in their win against Albert Lea on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Jake Pfeifer / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
DonTray Johnson led the Wingers with 21 points in their win against Albert Lea on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Jake Pfeifer / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

Something had to give with the Red Wing boys basketball team hosting Albert Lea on Thursday. With the two teams owning the two longest losing streaks in the Big Nine Conference going into the matchup, both were eager to right the ship. In what turned out to be a tightly contested matchup throughout much of the game, it was the Wingers that prevailed with the 63-54 victory.

The win wasn’t without its tribulations, however. The Wingers struggled to get into an offensive rhythm early as both teams played tight defense, forcing each other to make contested passes leading to back-and-forth baskets as well as turnovers. Red Wing was the first to break through, going on a seven-point run midway through the first half. The offense started to gel, balancing nicely with a tough defensive effort to create good matchups for the Wingers in transition.

“We thought our defensive pressure could cause some turnovers and allow us to transition and take advantage of some early buckets by attacking right away,” head coach Drew Olinger said. “We thought Albert Lea was going to toss a couple of different zones at us. The easiest way to break a zone is to not allow it to get set up.”

That strategy continued to prevail as Red Wing steadily stretched their lead and took a 34-25 lead into the half. As the second half opened though, Albert Lea rallied to make it a tighter affair. Turnovers, aided by a reinvigorated Tigers defensive effort, plagued the Wingers early on. Passing lanes closed up, shots weren’t falling, and the Tigers clawed back to within one near the midpoint of the second half trailing 34-33.

Almost in a mirror image of the first half, though, Red Wing stuck together and began to stretch their lead throughout the final 10 minutes of the game.

“I was really proud of how the guys stood up,” Olinger said. “We played together and kept up the pressure.”

Both teams went back-and-forth trading baskets, but as Albert Lea faced a 49-45 deficit, the game would never be that close again. The Wingers kept the tempo moving in their favor taking priority in shot selection and suffocating defense. Steals were a big part of that, as Red Wing finished with 15 as a team, led by sophomore Zach Cota with five. Albert Lea was unable to complete another second-half rally and the Wingers secured the win.

“Injuries have plagued us in the past few weeks,” Olinger said. “We’ve had a lot of young players get more minutes than they are used to and they really stepped up tonight.”

Red Wing shot 48 percent from the floor and 29 percent from behind the arc. Leading the Wingers in scoring were sophomore DonTray Johnson with 21 points, senior Nathan Carlson with 15, junior Carson Nystuen with 8 and sophomore Zach Cota with 7. The win puts the Wingers record at 5-14 overall and 4-11 in the Big Nine. Up next they travel to Faribault for a 7:30 p.m. tip off on Tuesday.

Jake Pfeifer

Jake Pfeifer is a sports reporter and outdoors editor for RiverTown Multimedia. Previously, he worked at Detroit Lakes Newspapers.

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