Facing the undefeated Class 3A’s 13th-ranked Alexandria Cardinals — a team they lost to 68-58 on Jan. 16 — the Brainerd Warriors got a 86-80 Central Lakes Conference win to extend their winning streak to nine games Friday, Feb.19.
Brainerd torched the nets from the start to shoot 60% from the field, including 10 3-pointers.
“A lot of it was just having that same intensity from the start of the game,” Warriors head coach Charlie Schoeck said. “I talked to the guys before the game, and I wanted them to envision the game and play it through in their head. To envision good things going into it because against a good team you know we are going to have your ups and downs and we wanted to focus on the positives.”
Griffin Rushin led the Warriors with 29 points while Mitchell Degen added 20, including 18 second-half points.
“We are believing in each other,” Degen said. “If one guy is down one night the other guy is stepping up and it’s going good. We trust every single one can knock down shots.”
With Brainerd up 10 in the second half, Degen scored nine of Brainerd’s first 11 second-half points including two offensive putbacks to extend the lead to 14.
“He’s really good at keeping the floor spaced and if guys aren’t in the spots they are in he’s a good traffic cop out there to let guys know to clear out,” Schoeck said. “He’s got an inside-outside threat which is nice too.”
Both Degen and Rushin finished with eight rebounds apiece, while Nick Evanson came off the bench to lead the Warriors with nine boards.
Evanson nailed one of his two 3s to put Brainerd up 53-41 before Alexandria stormed back on a 13-0 run to take its only lead of the night 54-53.
Brainerd showed poise, however, responding with an 11-0 run of its own capped off by a Degen layup.
The two teams kept exchanging baskets, but Brainerd iced the game at the free throw line. The Warriors nailed 11-of-15 free throws down the stretch.
“It makes it a lot easier at the end of those games and I probably won’t have grey hairs as soon if we keep hitting free throws at the end of the game,” Schoeck said. “It’s good to see. We put a lot of practice in it because it’s a big part of the game.”
Rushin nailed all four of his free throws in the final minute.
“I knew if those went in it was game over,” Rushin said.
The Cardinals were a perfect 18-for-18 from the charity stripe.
What will give Schoeck grey hairs, however, is Brainerd’s 10 turnovers with eight of them coming in the second half.
“Some of it is just making the easy play,” Schoeck said. “It’s something we stress a lot. It’s a good thing we are unselfish, but at times guys really want to make the highlight pass. Sometimes we just need to string together easy pass after easy pass to get an easy basket.”
The Warriors did rack up 21 assists as a team with Cooper Jacobs backing up his 10 assist game Thursday night with eight Friday.
“They are just playing as a team,” Schoeck said. “And playing for each other. The message has been the same all season: When we finish one game we are 0-0 and we have to come to work like it’s the start of the season every game. They are committed to that and playing for their teammates. The saying on the back of our (warm-up) shirts is ‘We > Me’ and these guys live that.”
Brainerd held the Cardinals to 44% shooting, including 34% in the first half.
“It’s just talking and getting gritty,” Degen said.
Seven of Brainerd’s 10 3-pointers came in the first half with Logen Roberts nailing three. The Warriors were 7-of-10 from 3 in the first half.
“We were able to get a lot more cutters through and free in that second half because we were hitting that 3-ball,” Schoeck said. “It was opening up some nice cut lanes for us.”
It was also Roberts who was tasked with guarding the other team’s best player on back-to-back nights holding Alexandria’s Colton Roderick to 20 points.
“We all know what Logen can do,” Schoeck said. “We put him on (Moorhead’s Brady) Walthall and Roderick the last two days and to me, he’s the player regardless of stats because he had a tough task and was able to make it tough for those guys.”
The Cardinals had five players in double figures including Kristen Hoskins with 14. Hoskins made headlines Friday off the court as he committed to play football at the University of Minnesota.
Myles Sansted added 14 for the Cardinals off the bench with three 3s.
Rushin made his presence felt early with a block on the first defensive possession and a layup for the first bucket. Brainerd leaped out to a 7-0 lead.
“He wants to make winning plays,” Schoeck said of Rushin. “All these guys do and when your best players are all leading by example and voice it carries down.”
The Warriors led by as many as 13 in the first half and went into halftime up 39-29.
Brainerd looks for its 10th straight win against Sartell Tuesday, Feb. 23.
“Looking at the section and conference these guys can go as far as we want to go,” Schoeck said. “Basketball is a crazy thing, but if we play our game and keep putting in the work I don’t think there is a team in our conference or section that we can’t beat.”
Sartell defeated Brainerd in the first game of the season 77-68 in Brainerd Jan. 14. It’ll be another chance for revenge for the red-hot Warriors.
“Not many teams have the team atmosphere we do,” Degen said. “It’s just special what we have right now.”
Alexandria 29 51 — 80
Brainerd 39 47 — 86
Myles Sansted 15, Wyatt Odland 10, Kristen Hoskins 14, Erik Hedstrom 17, Colton Roderick 20, Grayson Grove 2, Kobe Jenson 2. FG 28-63 (44%), FT 16-16. 3-point 8-20 (40%).
John Pecarich 7, Mitchell Degen 20, Logen Roberts 12, Cooper Jacobs 2, Griffin Rushin 29, Nick Evanson 9, Max Lelwica 7. FG 32-63 (60%), FT 12-18 (67%). 3-point 10-22 (46 %).
Warriors 86, Alexandria 80
Key: Rushin with 29, Degen with 20 as Brainerd tops undefeated Alex.
Conference: Brd 6-2, Alex 9-1.
Overall: Brd 9-2, Alex 10-1.
Next: Brainerd at Sartell 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23.
CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.