Knights doomed by slow start in loss to Eagles

MARSHALL – In what had been a dream season, the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Knights got off to a nightmarish start to Saturday’s Section 3A-South championship game at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Two of Class A’s top five boys’ basketball teams took the took the court in front of a packed R/A Facility. Within just nine minutes of action, defending section champion Southwest Minnesota Christian already had the game well in hand.

Plagued by a string of turnovers, fifth-ranked RTR was totally out of sorts as the Eagles started the game on a 22-1 run. It was a start the Knights could ill afford against anyone, let alone the third-ranked team in the state. SWC never allowed RTR to get closer than 15 the rest of the way as the Eagles soared into the Section 3A finals with a 77-58 victory.

“Defensively, they just took away everything that we wanted to do there early in the game and were able to get some buckets in transition to build that big lead,” RTR head coach Ted Kern said. “It got us reeling right away and we really didn’t recover until about midway through the second half.”

The winner of 22 straight games, SWC (26-1 overall) will face Dawson-Boyd at 5 p.m. Thursday at the R/A Facility in a rematch of last year’s section championship game.

RTR ends its season with a 27-2 record after seeing its 19-game winning streak snapped.

Within the first one minute, 30 seconds of Saturday’s game, Kern could already feel SWC grabbing momentum and called a quick timeout after SWC’s Dominic Nibbelink and Leighton Sampson both scored baskets in the paint and his team hadn’t gotten a good shot off. But the mistakes just kept piling up. Turnovers led to easy transition baskets for the Eagles and the Knights gave up a handful of second-chance scores as SWC bolted ahead in a stunning start.

Without having to worry about RTR forward Dylan Kor, who was serving a suspension, SWC head coach Jamie Pap said the focus was on containing standout guard Brett Peterson and center Brett Vercruysse early on. The Eagles couldn’t have done a much better job at that. Peterson, who battling both the SWC defense and illness, went scoreless in the first half and Vercruysse had just four points as the Eagles grabbed a 46-18 lead by halftime.

The Eagles are known for their tight defense, but Pap said he wanted his guys to sit back a little bit while trying to contain Peterson, who averages over 20 points per game.

“Actually, (the strategy was) to play off him a little bit,” Pap said. “With Peterson, if you guard him and get right in his grill he’s going to go around you and score. We wanted to force him into passing a little bit more so we took a step off him.

“The other thing was to have a helper. We had to double him sometimes when he was driving in and always have someone ready to help.”

The Knights’ woes continued early in the second half. Their first possession was a turnover and they immediately gave up a second-chance basket to SWC forward Eric Talsma, who finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three steals.

As the second half progressed, RTR gradually began to find its fire. Vercruysse had a huge hand in that, scoring 16 of his game-high 20 points in the final 18 minutes of action. He wouldn’t be denied in the paint and battled with SWC’s big bodies to score low-post baskets.

“In the second half of the season Brett’s game has improved tremendously,” Kern said. “He’s been very aggressive and able to finish, much like he did tonight, and just had tremendous improvement.

“For a kid with that kind of size, he moves extremely well.”

Peterson and sophomore guard Brett Knudsen also gave the Knights a boost. Knudsen hit a pair of 3s within a two-minute stretch and Peterson converted on a three-point play with 5:27 left in the game to slice the lead to 67-51. Knudsen split a pair of free throws after that to cut the lead to 15 but RTR was unable to get any closer than that.

SWC had four players finish in double figures. Leighton Sampson led the way with 18. Nate Pfeifle hit four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points and Nibbelink scored 13.

Knudsen hit four 3s for RTR, scoring 13 points, guard Shay Wabeke added 10 points in his final game in an RTR uniform and Peterson finished with eight points.

It was a tough way for the Knights to end their season, a season in which they went a perfect 15-0 in the Camden Conference. But Kern said the team’s final game can’t take away what his players accomplished.

“I’m extremely proud of the kids,” Kern said. “The way they’ve progressed from last year, the way that the seniors stepped up and the juniors improved, I couldn’t ask for any more for the kids other than coming out with a win tonight.”