January 22, 2004 at 2:28 p.m.
Pine City 41
Through the first week of the season, everyone had the same prediction- North Branch first, St. Michael-Albertville, Foley and Pine City next. Last week, the Vikings took another huge step in making sure that’s exactly what happens, defeating the Dragons and Knights, putting them in the driver’s seat in the Rum River conference if they weren’t already.
Last Tuesday versus Pine City, the anticipated match-up lived up to the billing in the first half. The Vikings and Dragons traded baskets through much of the first quarter, accounting for six lead changes in the first eight minutes of basketball. The last lead change took place when Matt Nelson’s three-pointer with under a minute to play in the first quarter put the Vikings in front 13-12. North Branch would never trail from that point on although Pine City made it interesting.
Leading 16-12 after one, the Dragons crawled back to tie before the Vikings three-point touch turned deadly in the second. Matt Fletcher opened the barrage with a three-ball, the fourth straight three-pointer by North Branch, before Nelson added his second of the game a few minutes later, putting the Vikings in front by seven, 26-19. Still, Pine City was far from finished. The Dragons answered back, pulling within three before Britt Baumann pushed it back to five at the break, 28-23.
“Pine City is a very good team and they really gave us some problems, but we hung in there and eventually took over the game,” said Bill Baumann, North Branch head boys basketball coach. “Matt Fletcher picked up two fouls in the first quarter and picked up his third with 3:50 left in the second quarter. At that time, we were ahead 21-19 and we played the rest of the first half without him and came out with a halftime lead. It was important for our bench to step up when we encountered foul trouble in the first half. Bowie McClaskie, Ben Stenberg, and Greg Moriarty are really coming through.”
The whole Viking team came through in the third. After Pine City cut the North Branch lead to four with less than six minutes to play in the third, the Vikings went back to their old number one to take control, the three-point shot. Baumann started the flurry before the Dragons rattled off six straight points to pull within one, 35-34. It was Baumann’s second three-pointer that really opened the flood gates. With two three-pointers in the bag, the Vikings nailed four more. Fletcher, Baumann, Fletcher, McClaskie, in that order, turning a one point lead into 16 points. When the third quarter was over, the Vikings had hit six three-pointers total (in case you weren’t counting), shot 64 percent from the field, and held a 17-point advantage, 52-35. The Vikings finished the game with 12 threes.
“We stepped it up, but more important, we stepped it up on defense and on the defensive boards,” remarked Baumann. “They were going zone against us. We penetrated the zone and kicked the ball back out. We had some guys who were really wide open. When you leave us that open, we’re going to nail those shots.”
Needless to say, the three-point clinic pulled the Dragons out of their zone, but they still couldn’t avoid the loss. In the fourth, North Branch went inside at will, striking for 12 points. Fletcher led the way with six. Moriarty, Tony Beaver, and Stenberg also added to the attack, finalizing a 64-41 win. Fletcher led the Vikings in scoring with 23. Baumann struck for 16 and Nelson chipped in with 10.
“Matt Nelson is starting to get back to his old form and Jake Anderson is playing hard and working his way back,” replied Baumann. “Tony Beaver plays a very sound game on both ends of the floor. It’s great to have Britt Baumann back to 100 percent and Matt Fletcher is our rock.”
North Branch 64
Pine City 41
1 2 3 4 F
Pine City 12 11 12 6 41
North Branch 16 12 24 12 64
Fletcher 23, Baumann 16, Nelson 10, McClaskie 5, Stenberg 2, Moriarty 2.
North Branch 65
St. Michael-Albertville 54
One down, one more difficult game to go. The Vikings finished last week with one of their stiffest tests of the season, St. Michael-Albertville, on the road.
The game began fast and furious, leading to four lead changes in the first four minutes. Tied 9-9, the Knights outscored North Branch down the stretch, taking a 13-11 lead into the second. It was anybody’s ballgame.
The second brought more of the same. Both teams opened the quarter with three-pointers before back-to-back baskets by Fletcher and McClaskie put the Vikings in front by three. Right on cue, the Knights sank a three to tie, pulling the teams even for the fourth time in the game, 19-19. However, as against Pine City earlier in the week, the Vikings saw an opening in the second and took advantage of it, finishing the quarter on a 12-4 run, sparked by two Fletcher three-pointers.
“Looking at the recent scores, we knew St. Michael had been getting out to fast starts, so we knew we had to be ready right from the start,” remembered Baumann. “We were able to withstand their initial charge and then we kept plugging away to take the lead.”
In the third, that lead grew….a lot. Beaver, Nelson and Fletcher combined to run the Viking advantage to nine less than three minutes in, 39-30. After a Knight basket, Jake Anderson sparked another run with a three-pointer as North Branch finished the quarter with a bang, outscoring St. Michael 11-3 over the last four minutes, growing their three quarter lead to 50-35.
“We’ve had a couple of injuries and other problems that has limited our flexibility, but we are having somebody else step up every night and help carry the load,” said Baumann.
The Knights had nowhere to go. Down by 15, they fought back to an eight point deficit twice in the fourth but the Vikings never let them any closer than that, clinching the win from the free throw line. North Branch shot eight of 10 from the charity stripe in the fourth, accounting for more than half of their quarter points, en route to a 65-54 win.
“We are a high assist-low turnover team that really moves the basketball,” mentioned Baumann. “Overall, our offense is set up so we can shoot a high percentage, and if we aren’t shooting well, we’re going to the free throw line to get our points. We did not shoot the ball really well (50 percent), but we were effective when we needed to be. The last few games we have reverted back to our old school roots and gone to grinding things out and becoming methodical in our attack.”
Whatever they’re doing, however they’re doing it, it’s working. The two wins tightened the Vikings grip on the conference lead, putting them at 6-0.
North Branch 65
1 2 3 4 F
North Branch 11 20 19 15 65
STMA 13 10 12 19 54
Fletcher 26, Baumann 11, Nelson 11, Beaver 7, Anderson 6, Stenberg 4.