Vikings come together to take down Trojans

MONTEVIDEO – The Minneota Vikings haven’t been the same since sophomore point guard Dylan Tolk went down with a serious knee injury Jan. 4.

Prior to that day they had won nine straight games, but since the setback had lost five of seven contests heading into the postseason.

Saturday, the fifth-seeded Vikings knocked off No. 4 seed Ortonville 65-58 in the quarterfinals of the Section 3A-North boys’ basketball tournament in Montevideo. Though they’re still not the same team they were with Tolk, they feel they made a big leap forward in finding the cohesion that they had lacked without the guard who was the team’s leading scorer and top distributor.

“He brings a lot to our team and losing him definitely hurt us, but I think this game we came together as a team more than we have in the other games and it feels good,” said Minneota sophomore Daniel Harrison, who scored a game-high 21 points in the victory. “We can’t have one guy doing too much, we just have to let the game come to us and not force stuff, and I think we did that well today.”

The Vikings (15-8 overall) had lost to Ortonville 76-56 on Dec. 27 when Tolk was in the lineup, but at the time were still young and inexperience and learning the system that new head coach Dave Busselman was putting in place. They had an idea of what to expect in the rematch and they knew a key would be how they performed in the opening minutes of the game.

“We’ve had some slow starts. I emphasized that in the locker room and have emphasized it all week that we can’t come out slow, we had to come out aggressive,” said Busselman, whose Vikings advance to face No. 1 seed Dawson-Boyd at 6 p.m. Thursday at Southwest Minnesota State.

Minneota couldn’t have asked for a better start Saturday. The Vikings came out blazing from beyond the arc, and pulled out to a 24-10 lead eight minutes into the game. Senior guard Aric Christenson, who finished with 16 points, hit a pair of 3-pointers during the span, with Harrison and senior center Grant Hennen also each connecting on a shot from distance. Hennen’s 3 gave Minneota a 14-point edge and forced Ortonville to call a timeout.

The Trojans (12-11) got back in the game behind a big first half from senior forward Cole Peters. Peters hit three 3-pointers of his own and scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half. His third 3 of the half came with 50 seconds left and pulled his team to within a point at 30-29 heading into halftime.

The Vikings scored just six points in the final nine minutes of the half as they cooled off considerably. When the second half started and with their lead nearly gone, the Vikings stopped looking for shots from the perimeter and began slashing to the basket.

“We’re an outside-looking-in team, and by shooting well from the outside early that made the lane a lot bigger for us,” Busselman said.

Harrison and senior forward David Noyes found space in the lane in the second half to get the Vikings’ offense churning once again. Harrison scored six of the team’s first eight points in the second half on drives to the basket and gave Minneota a 38-32 lead when Hennen found him on a cut for a layup. A three-point play by Noyes later built the lead up to eight with 10:20 left in the game, and Minneota pushed its lead to double figures with eight minutes left when Matt Knutson hit a tough floater over Ortonville’s 6-foot-4 forward Riley Thompson.

The Vikings struggled a bit with Ortonville’s pressure defense down the stretch as the Trojans battled for their playoff lives, and also had a tough time hitting free throws to seal the game, but Minneota never allowed Ortonville to get closer than five in the closing minutes.

It was a big win for a team that had been reeling, but Busselman said he could see it coming despite the Vikings’ sluggish finish to the season.

“(Friday) night at practice I said ‘I think we’re ready,'” Busselman said. “I said ‘You guys are doing what you’re supposed to do and we just have to go out and win it.’

“I don’t usually tell teams what my goals are, but when I first took this job, the first week of practice I looked at the scheduling and everything and said if we can play at (SMSU), that means we’re one of the top four teams in the (sub-section) and that means we’ve come a long ways as a program and for what we had out there.”