Tigers tamed in semifinal thriller

MINNEAPOLIS – A sense of relief was clearly present in the voice of Austin Packers head coach Kris Fadness, his team having just escaped with a 68-65 overtime victory over Marshall in the Class AAA boys’ basketball state tournament semifinals.

Unbeaten on the season, the Packers were pushed to the limit by a Tigers team that shot 56.4 percent from the field and outrebounded Austin 25-18 inside Target Center on Thursday. Employing a zone defense and applying full-court pressure, the long and athletic Packers couldn’t prevent Marshall from shooting a high percentage, but they did force the Tigers into 19 turnovers which, along with some second-half struggles from the free throw line by Marshall, proved to be the difference.

In a game that saw 18 lead changes and seven ties, Fadness said the Tigers gave the Packers all they could handle.

“They’ve got a lot of guys at that 6-2 to 6-3 range, they all can handle the ball and they all can shoot it,” he said. “They really attack the basket effectively through cuts and penetration. We were worried about getting stops at the defensive end and thankfully we got just enough of them.

“I can’t say enough good things about Marshall. They’re a great team and this was a very quality win for our program.”

Austin point guard Zach Wessles had a game-high 20 points and four steals. He scored on an acrobatic layup through contact with 1 minute, 21 seconds left in overtime and finished off the three-point play to give his team a 63-58 lead, then knocked down two more free throws with 11 seconds left to help seal the game. University of Sioux Falls commit Tom Aase, a 6-foot-5 forward, added 16 points to go with five rebounds and four blocked shots.

Second-seeded Austin (30-0 overall) advances to face defending state champion DeLaSalle (29-1), which routed St. Paul Johnson 86-59 Saturday in the other semifinal game. The Packers and Islanders will play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Target Center.

Marshall (28-3) will take on St. Paul Johnson (22-8) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Concordia University-St. Paul in the third-place game.

Riding a 17-game win streak, the Tigers weren’t intimidated by the Packers and their perfect record entering Thursday’s showdown.

“Coach said all the pressure is on them and he was right. He said if we came out and played good, we’ve never lost when we played good,” said Marshall senior forward Tanner Bukowski, who scored a team-high 16 points and had four steals. “We went out there and played with the mentality to leave it all out there, and I think we did that.”

Neither the Tigers nor Packers ever had more than a six-point lead in Thursday’s game. With his team down two points with 37 seconds remaining, Marshall senior forward Tanner Bukowski grabbed an offensive rebound and flipped in a one-handed shot from the left baseline just outside the lane to tie the game at 56. Austin called a timeout with 11 seconds left to set up a game-winning shot, but Marshall’s defense prevented the Packers from even getting off an attempt.

Had the Tigers made their free throws down the stretch they could have possibly won the game in regulation. Marshall, which shot 72 percent from the free throw line during the season, went 5-for-11 in the final 10 minutes of the second half.

“It hurt watching those not go in, especially when it’s that close of a game,” said Bukowski, who went 3-for-8 from the line. “If we could have made more free throws at the end of regulation we wouldn’t have had to be in that overtime situation.”

Austin scored the first four points of overtime from the free throw line and grabbed a five-point lead with 1:21 left following Wessels’ key three-point play. Following a pair of free throws by Marshall’s Hunter Peterson, Bukowski stole the ball from Wessels and took it all the way to the hoop for a layup to cut the lead to 63-62 with 42 seconds left.

Ajuda Nywesh, who scored 12 points for Austin, hit a pair of free throws with 29 seconds remaining to push the lead back to three. Bukowski then turned the ball over after miscommunication on a pass on the perimeter with 15 seconds left. Austin went 3-for-4 from the foul line after that to close out the victory.

“I’m proud of our guys’ effort,” Marshall’s first-year head coach, Travis Carroll, said. “They’ve given us the same effort all year and today they did the same and we just fell a little bit short.”

Marshall was scorching from the field in the first half, shooting 70.6 percent with nine of its 12 baskets coming off of assists. Forward Aaron Mathiowetz was finding holes in the Packers’ zone and setting up teammates for baskets all game. He finished with seven of his team’s 13 assists.

“Their zone gave us some trouble but there were some gaps we felt we could exploit a little and I think we did,” said Marshall senior guard Austin Saugstad, who had 12 points and three assists. “We got some great looks on offense and some shots went down, some of them didn’t.”

The Tigers built their lead to six with 2:32 left in the first half after a 3-pointer by Derek Buysse from in front of the Packers’ bench. But a jumper at the buzzer by Austin guard Bret Lukes cut Marshall’s lead to 30-28 at the break.

Marshall got off to a rough start to the second half with a pair of turnovers and fell behind by four after Aase hit a shot over Mathiowetz in the lane. A 3-pointer by Riley Sharbono on a kick-out pass from Mathiowetz about three minutes into the half tied the game and helped lift the Tigers out of their early funk.

The game went back and forth the rest of the way, with neither team leading by more than four through the end of regulation in an electric finish.

“It was awesome playing in the Target Center,” Saugstad said. “As a kid you always dream about coming and playing in the state tournament and getting to play on the Target Center floor and it was a great experience.”

Marshall held Division I Davidson commit Joe Aase, Tom Aase’s 6-8 cousin, to eight points in the game but he had a big impact on the defensive end like his brother.

Sharbono finished with 13 points for the Tigers, while Buysse added 12 points and six rebounds off the bench.

The Tigers now have to overcome the disappointment of being denied an opportunity to compete for a state championship on the 50th anniversary of the program’s only state title. But there’s still more work to be done and a third-place trophy that can be added with a win over St. Paul Johnson Saturday.

“It’s still an opportunity to play a game,” Carroll said. “A lot of teams are sitting at home right now and done for the year and you know what, we have a chance to go out and play another game and go for that third-place finish. That’s not a bad finish for the number of teams we have in our class. It’s something to be proud of.”