January 6, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.
With an opening round match up against Class AAA #9 Bemidji, the Chisago Lakes boys basketball team knew they drew the tough assignment in their four team Holiday Tournament.
The Wildcats, sporting a 3-1 record heading into the game, kept things neck and neck in the first half with the Lumberjacks, who were 5-0 coming into the tournament.
Bemidji used a nice mix of defense and a lot of fouls to limit Chisago Lakes' stud Benj Figini. In fact, through the first half, Figini, who was second in the state in scoring at 32 points per game coming in, was limited to only seven points in the first half.
But, their own suffocating defense, and a keen eye by senior guard Jordan Hickcox kept them in the game. Hickcox, who is the second leading scorer for the Wildcats on the season, swooshed three three pointers in the first half, leading the team with nine points.
Steve Ramberg added five points and Per Gulbranson had four points as CL found themselves only down one, 26-25, at the halftime horn.
Although the game plan in the second half was to get Figini going under the basket, the wheels came off on the defensive end.
Despite 15 points from Figini in the second half, and actually scoring more points, the 'Cats suddenly couldn't stop the Lumberjacks from scoring, as Bemidji rang up 41 points in the second half to Chisago's 28. The real killer for Bemidji was Carey Woods, who hit three quick three points in the beginning of the second half, and led the Lumberjacks with 22 points, 15 of them coming in the deciding second half.
Despite Figini's 22 points, he didn't quite get the looks he is used to. He only attempted seven field goals on the night, but was hacked often. He went to the charity stripe 11 times, converting seven. He ended the game with 13 rebounds to go along with his scoring.
Hickcox only scored one more basket in the second half and ended with 11 points. Both Gulbranson and Ramberg scored eight points in a supporting role for the 'Cats.
Chisago Lakes 51, North St. Paul 48
After their tough loss to the top team in the tournament, the Wildcats had to regroup the next day in the third place game against North St. Paul, who had lost the previous night to St. Paul Highland Park 63-55.
Including their opening round loss, the Polars came into the game at 2-3, The first half got off to a slow start, and it would be a sign of things to come for the first 18 minutes of the game.
Neither team could get into rhythm for the whole first half, as fouls, turnovers and general sloppy play plagued both teams.
Chisago Lakes held a slight lead at 14-11 with only a handful of minutes left in the half. With an obvious disappointment in the execution up to that point, Jangor pulled all five players off the court and replaced them with mostly underclassmen for the rest of the half.
North St. Paul was able to capitalize, outscoring the 'Cats 9-3 the rest of the way to go into halftime with a 20-17 lead in the low-scoring affair.
Figini, who had struggled in the first half the night before, only had five points by half, as North St. Paul was doing a good job of being physical with him and denying him the ball in the post. It didn't help that the usually rock solid defense that Figini provides was getting him into foul trouble, as he ran up three fouls in the first half.
Things began to heat up for both teams once the second half started. Figini started willing his way to the basket, and if he was denied on a first attempt, he would bully his way back down and get another attempt.
As Figini was constantly drawing double- and triple-teams, he was feeding teammates the ball. As a result, NSP's help defense was always late, and they were constantly fouling the open Wildcats.
Joe Fernstrom, Gulbranson and Figini were drawing constant fouls, and it really hurt the Polars' rotation.
Chisago Lakes finally made their run to pass the Polars with a couple minutes left in the half, but it was far from over. Despite stretching their lead to six at one point, a Korey Dean three-pointer for NSP cut the lead to three with just under a minute to go.
On the ensuing possession for Chisago Lakes, Figini was fouled going to the basket. Until that point, the usually accurate senior forward was seven-of-eight from the free throw line, but he clanked both of his attempts off the front of the rim, giving North St. Paul a chance to tie.
With 16 seconds left, the Polars' Johnny Economy pushed the ball up the court, but after a few too many fancy moves that were defended well by Hickcox, Economy picked up his dribble at a bad time, and the Wildcats rushed to force him into a turnover.
Although Economy got the ball out of his hands, it was to Dean, who was eight feet behind the three point line, and only had three seconds to work with.
Dean launched a desperation three pointer that clanged off the back of the rim, then the front of the rim and bounced out.
The Chisago Lakes crowd let out a heavy sigh of relief as the 'Cats held on for the three point win.
Figini led the way with 27 points, scoring 22 of them in the second half, and eight rebounds. Gulbranson added nine points and five rebounds, and Fernstrom and Hickcox both had six points. Hickcox also added seven rebounds and four assists.
The big stat for the Wildcats was their free throw shooting, in the choppy, foul-filled game, the 'Cats got the better of the exchange, shooting 20-of-29 from the free throw line while North St. Paul was only nine-of-17.
The 'Cats had their first North Suburban Conference game of the year with a tangle against Totino-Grace earlier this week, and they have one more non-conference game on Friday at home against Grand Rapids at 7:15 before they get into the meat of the NSC schedule, which will be the most challenging part of their season.