Tigers rip Rapids

MINNEAPOLIS – All season long, the Marshall boys’ basketball team has been reminded of the 1963 Tiger team that won the state championship 50 years ago, a team that was honored in Marshall’s regular season home finale. Back in the same venue where that 1963 team hoisted the championship trophy, the 2013 Tigers made a little history of their own.

Facing Grand Rapids and 6-foot-9 standout sophomore center Alex Illikainen in the Class AAA state tournament quarterfinals, the Tigers continued their march toward repeating history by pulling away midway through the second half for a 69-52 victory in Williams Arena in Minneapolis. It was the program’s first state tournament win since 1970.

The third-seeded Tigers advance to face unbeaten Austin at 2 p.m. today at Target Center. They’ve tackled big challenges all season and took down South Dakota’s last unbeaten team, Sioux Falls Roosevelt, last month. Riding a 17-game winning streak, the 28-2 Tigers enter the semifinals brimming with confidence.

“We feel like we can play with anyone and there’s no one we’d rather play than an undefeated team in the semis. It’s going to be fun,” said Marshall junior guard Riley Sharbono, who scored a team-high 18 points on 8 of 12 shooting Wednesday.

There were no state tournament jitters for Marshall in its first trip to Williams Arena since 2011, or at least the Tigers hid them well. They shot 60 percent from the field (27-for-45) and had 20 assists to just six turnovers.

Marshall also owned the glass despite having nobody within five inches of Illikainen’s height on its roster. Illikainen entered the game averaging 27 points and 15 rebounds. The skilled big man got his points Wednesday, 31 of them on 12 of 19 shooting, but he was held to just three rebounds. Marshall finished the game with a dominant 27-14 rebounding edge and had nine offensive boards to the Thunderhawks’ two.

Marshall and Grand Rapids (20-10 overall) went almost basket for basket over the first 10 minutes before the Tigers used an 11-2 run to grab a 27-18 lead. Sharbono scored seven points during the run, getting two baskets by cutting to the hoop and receiving a pass from senior guard Austin Saugstad. He also scored on a three-point play in the paint. By halftime, Marshall had built a 36-26 lead.

First-year head coach Travis Carroll said the Tigers’ offensive efficiency stemmed from its ball movement, which allowed the team to get easy looks around the basket throughout the game.

“These are big games, but when you play in big games it’s a lot easier when you can utilize your teammates,” Carroll said. “It’s fun to watch from the sideline and it was probably fun to watch for the fans, too, because our guys shared the ball at a pretty high level tonight.”

The game slowed down in the second half, a pace which better favored the Thunderhawks. Illikainen went on a personal 8-0 run to cut Marshall’s lead to 45-42 with 11 minutes remaining. He scored two baskets off of inbounds plays under the basket and had two three-point plays during the run. After a 3-pointer by Grand Rapids’ AJ Watland, who spotted up from the left wing in transition, Marshall’s lead was cut to 47-45 with 9:30 on the clock.

Marshall answered back with a 12-2 run of its own to break open the game. Saugstad started it by cutting baseline and getting a layup off a pass from senior forward Aaron Mathiowetz from the free throw line. Senior Tanner Bukowski then got a steal and started a fastbreak, feeding Sharbono for layup. Sharbono scored another layup on the next possession off a drive and dish from Mathiowetz.

Mathiowetz then hit a 3-pointer from the top the key, one of four he hit in the game on his way to 14 points, and Marshall’s lead was back up to nine. The Tigers grew their lead to 59-47 after Spencer Petrich scored a layup with 5:19 left in the game following a steal by Bukowski.

With two steals by Bukowski and a blocked layup attempt by Derek Buysse, Carroll said the key to the run was kicking it up a gear on the defensive end.

“Grand Rapids got it down really close there in the second half but our guys, like they’ve done all year and like we expect them to do, they responded to adversity, made a nice run and stretched it out,” Carroll said. “We weren’t getting any stops on defense and once we started getting some stops it created some transition offense for us and kind of got us a little more in our offensive flow.”

Grand Rapids never got within single digits the rest of the way.

Mathiowetz, who stands 6-2, drew the tough challenge of bodying up with the towering Illikainen much of the game. He held his own down low and got twice as many rebounds (six) as Illikainen.

“We just made sure to not let him catch it in the box as much as possible,” said Mathiowetz, who also had a game-high seven assists. “He broke his left wrist not too long ago and just came back so we wanted to force him to use his left hand as much as possible and make him uncomfortable. Once he went up with a shot we had to make sure we boxed out and not let him get easy second-chance opportunities.”

Mathiowetz also took advantage of a sagging defense on the other end and went 4-for-6 from 3-point range.

“That was the first time my shot has felt that good in a while,” he said. “I just got confident, got in a rhythm and my teammates kept finding me. We just fed off each other’s energy.”

Bukowski and Buysse each finished with nine points for the Tigers. Saugstad added six points, five assists and five rebounds.

Illikainen, who took half of his team’s 38 shot attempts, was the only Thunderhawk to reach double figures in scoring. Forward Sam Smokrovich added eight points and had five rebounds. Nobody else on the team had more than three rebounds.

The Tigers now turn their attention to Austin, which had to come back from a double-digit second-half deficit to beat Blake 59-56 Wednesday. Marshall defeated Blake 68-58 on Feb. 2, though Carroll said Blake was missing a key player that game.

Needing to beat Austin, something few teams have even come close to doing this season, to get to the championship will be a tall order, but Carroll said the Tigers have been stepping up to challenges all season.

“They’re a great team, they’re undefeated, and I think their record speaks for itself,” Carroll said of Austin. “I think our guys are going to be excited about playing an undefeated team at this time of the year. You get here and you get to play the best teams, and that’s where we want to be.”