A fitting finish: Tigers take 3rd at state tourney

ST. PAUL – Attack in transition. Crash the boards. Lock down on defense. Play smart. Play as a team.

Moving past the disappointment of being denied the opportunity to play for the Class AAA state championship, the Marshall boys’ basketball team had one goal in Saturday’s third-place game against St. Paul Johnson: to go out playing the same brand of basketball they played coming in.

In a frenetic up-and-down game against the quick and athletic Governors, the Tigers displayed all the qualities they used to compile 17 straight victories and qualify for the program’s ninth state tournament appearance. Building as much as a 21-point lead, Marshall held off a late St. Paul Johnson rally to claim a 71-62 victory in front of a sizable contingent of Tiger fans who made the trip to Concordia University-St. Paul’s Gangelhoff Center.

“It’s nothing new, how we started the season was how we ended the season and that was kind of the message before the game was we’ve done a lot of good things to get to this point and let’s not change the way we play the game,” said Marshall head coach Travis Carroll, who led his team to a 29-3 record in his first year at the helm. “Our guys did a great job of going out the way we played basketball all year and I’m just proud of the guys. It’s always tough to say goodbye to the seniors but we have a lot to be proud of this season as a team.”

Marshall got another balanced scoring effort in its final game. Junior guard Riley Sharbono had 18 points and eight rebounds, senior guard Austin Saugstad posted 17 points, six rebounds and four assists, and senior forward Derek Buysse added 15 points and six boards. Senior forward Aaron Mathiowetz had a dominant performance on the glass, grabbing 16 of his team’s 50 rebounds, while senior Tanner Bukowski had 10 points and four steals.

Coming off an overtime loss to then-unbeaten Austin in Thursday’s semifinals, the Tigers opened Saturday’s game struggling to deal with St. Paul Johnson’s quickness and intense ball pressure. They turned the ball over four times in the first 2 minutes, 16 seconds of the game and fell behind 7-2.

Marshall began to use the Governors’ aggressiveness against them and attacked in transition. Stringing together layups by Bukowski and Buysse, and a corner 3-pointer by Sharbono, Marshall went on a 7-0 run to take its first lead of the game at 11-10 with 12:38 left in the first half. They kept pushing the tempo on offense and getting easy looks around the basket during a 12-0 run that extended the lead to 23-12.

“We had to adjust to the speed of the game and once we adjusted to the speed of the game our guys did really well,” Carroll said. “We actually got a lot of good looks in transition. Kind of the question going into the game was, ‘Can you run with a team like that?’ Well, when a team like that gives you opportunities to go, you’ve gotta go and take those easy looks. That’s kind of what our guys did and were able to stretch it out there in the first half.”

Defense and rebounding were two other keys to the Tigers pulling out to a 39-24 lead by halftime. Reserve guard Carl Douglas drew a charge on St. Paul Johnson leading scorer Quashingm Smith-Pugh with 11:03 left in the half, forcing the forward to sit on the bench with three fouls. Smith-Pugh battled foul trouble all game and played just 19 minutes, but still scored 15 points to go with seven rebounds and four steals.

“That was huge,” Sharbono said of Douglas drawing the charge on Smith-Pugh. “The first half he didn’t play very often and in the second half he played well. Getting him out in that first half helped us jump on them early and they couldn’t come back all the way from that.”

Marshall also held a 30-15 rebounding edge at halftime, thanks in large part to nine rebounds by Mathiowetz.

The Tigers continued to roll early in the second half and built their lead to 21 after a layup by Sharbono with 10:42 left in the game. With less than four minutes remaining and trailing by 16, St. Paul Johnson put together a final run to put a scare into the Tigers.

Smith-Pugh and Diantre Collins knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 10, then guard Jalen Mobley hit a pair of free throws, stole the ball from Mathiowetz and flew down the court for a layup to cut the lead to 63-56 with 1:42 remaining. With the referees allowing physical play, Mobley stripped away another steal from Saugstad seconds later and made a layup with 1:12 left in the game.

Marshall regained its composure and kept control of the ball, forcing St. Paul Johnson to foul down the stretch. After a pair of free throws from Saugstad, who went 10-for-13 from the line, senior Hunter Peterson scored a layup with 46 seconds left to push the lead back to 10 and seal the game.

The third-place finish was a satisfying way for the Tigers to close a special season.

“It was awesome this whole year. I think our team really defined what a team was,” Saugstad said. “These are the guys you’ve played with your whole life and this is how you dreamed it would end.”

Added Sharbono, “Next year a lot of these guys are going to look to me as a leader. It’s going to be tough saying goodbye to all of these seniors. It’s been one heck of a basketball season, my favorite ever, and it will be tough saying bye.”