March 17, 2011 at 8:58 a.m.
After North Branch bested Chisago Lakes twice in the regular season, once in a nail-biter that went down to the last minute, and once in blowout fashion, the Vikings boys basketball team knew it wouldn't be easy coming out on top a third time in the opening round of Section 7AAA playoffs.
The teams drew each other because they are in a six team section. The Wildcats, based on their greater number of regular season wins, received the fourth seed in the section. North Branch, despite their season sweep over Chisago Lakes, was relegated to the fifth seed, thus becoming the road team in this pivotal match up.
It looked as though the home court advantage would be crucial to the Wildcats. Although the North Branch fans outnumbered the Chisago Lakes fans, Chisago Lakes quieted them quickly and got their own fans rowdy when they started the game on a 9-0 run.
After playing from behind North Branch all of last game, it was a good start for Chisago Lakes to get a leg up on their in-county rivals.
That nine point cushion was short-lived, however, as Viking Brandon Johnson hit the Vikes first shot, and that was followed by a North Branch three to quickly cut the lead to four.
After the initial frenzy, North Branch calmed down and started to work their way back into the lead. About halfway through the first half, North Branch had tied it, and just a few minutes later, they started to build a lead. Over the next few minutes, the teams callously went shot-for-shot. As David Leason would make good on a drive on one end, the Wildcats would answer with a Benj Figini bucket.
The tit-for-tat went back and forth, with Figini and Leason and Forrest Huset all working their way to the free throw line as the foul-heavy first half began to wind down.
With 45 seconds remaining and North Branch up 31-30, they controlled the ball and seemed content to run out the clock until they could get the last shot.
However, another post shot presented itself with about 20 seconds left, and North Branch missed it. As Chisago Lakes raced down the court to capitalize and take a halftime lead, they turned the ball over hastily, which led to a Christian Ehrnriter lay up for North Branch with only a few seconds remaining.
After Chisago missed their last shot, the Vikings went into the locker room up 33-30, which was quite an accomplishment after being down nine within the first few minutes.
The Vikes' momentum carried into the second half, and they scored a few easy baskets early.
Just when it looked like North Branch might be pulling away, Figini drew three straight fouls, including an and-one. The senior big man converted all five free throws in the three-play stretch, and Chisago Lakes was right back in striking distance.
But, that didn't last long as Huset, a senior who has come up big time and time again for North Branch this year, hit two cold-blooded three pointers to again stretch the North Branch lead.
North Branch stayed a good distance away from Chisago Lakes for most of the second half, but a couple of key swings changed that.
After a technical foul on Leason, which came after a shooting foul on Scott Bossard, Figini went to the line for four straight free throws, making good on three of them, and the Wildcats got the ball. Although they scored, that still left them six points back at 56-50.
Again, North Branch answered with offense of their own, and started to pull away. The lead stayed in the 10 to 12 point range until about 40 seconds were left on the clock. After Figini sunk a three to cut the North Branch lead to eight, a sloppy in bounds pass to Ehrnriter led to an easy lay up by Jordan Hickcox, and made it a two-possession game.
Having to rest due to fouls, Chisago Lakes started hacking away at North Branch to keep the clock in their favor, but the Vikings continued to make good on their free throws.
Despite some late baskets by Chisago Lakes, they still fell by five points.
The Vikings moved on to play top seed Grand Rapids earlier this week, the game was played after the Press went to print. For full results, check out next week's issue of the Chisago County Press.
For Chisago Lakes, the loss ended the tenure of accomplished forward Figini, as well as a host of seniors, including Hickcox, Steve Ramberg, Joe Fernstrom, Jesse Patterson and Chris Thompson.