Paint Patrol: Vikings take it inside to hold off Cherry in state semifinals

Published 3:01 pm Friday, March 25, 2022

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MINNEAPOLIS — The top-seeded Hayfield boys basketball team showed that it’s not afraid to get inside and do the dirty work as it bested No. 5 seeded Cherry by a score of 72-61 in the Minnesota Class A State Boys Basketball Tournament semifinals in Williams Arena Friday.

Just two days after the Vikings (31-2 overall) were on fire from downtown in their quarterfinal win, Hayfield made just four three-pointers while staying committed to getting inside against the Tigers.

“That’s been us all year. We shoot a lot of threes, but we can go inside too,” Hayfield head coach Chris Pack said. “We’re a well rounded team and we had a size advantage today. Cherry is scrappy and we had to be strong with the ball. I’m really happy with how we finished inside.”

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Hayfield had four players score at least 15 points as the team made its living in the paint. Senior Easton Fritcher posted a double-double with 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, while going eight-for-10 from the field and sophomore Zander Jacobson put up 15 points and eight rebounds, while shooting seven-of-nine from the field.

Cherry never led in the second half, but it got as close as 55-48 after three by Isaac Asuma with 5:40 left. The Vikings scored the next five points when Isaac Matti was able to get to the hoop for a strong finish and Kobe Foster drilled a baseline three to make it 60-48 with 4:30 left. Cherry was never able to get back in it down the stretch as the Vikings kept their composure.

“It’s so valuable to have these guys who were in it last year,” Pack said. “Cherry is young and they’ll probably be back. I think the start of the game, where we went up 8-2 was due to that. They answered and battled back, but there is no substitute for experience. Our guys had some turnovers, but for the most part, they handled it under pressure.”

Asuma, a sophomore, kept the Tigers in the game throughout the day as he poured in 36 points, while adding nine rebounds and five assists. Asuma went six-for-10 on threes as he hit some from deep and some with a hand in his face.

In the postgame press conference, Hayfield’s Isaac Matti was twice asked if it was “fun” to guard Asuma and he said “no” both times.

“It was difficult,” said Matti, who had 16 points of his own. “He’s fast and he’s got a lot of moves. I knew I had my hands full. He had 36, so I don’t know (what to do).”

The Vikings made a big push at the end of the first half as they put together nine straight points to go up 32-26. Matti hit an off-balanced three to put the Vikings up 27-26 with 2:10 left in the half and he added a three-point play to make it 31-26 with a minute until halftime.

Pack took a gamble on Fritcher when he left him in the game with two fouls for the last 12 minutes of the half. The move played off for Hayfield, which trailed by as many as seven in the opening frame. Fritcher avoided foul trouble on defense, while also giving Hayfield some offense. He scored on a post move to bring Hayfield within 26-24 and he also scored to bring his team within 12-10 shortly after he was called for a charge. 

“Our whole game plan was to crash the boards and be physical,” said Fritcher. “With three quick charges we had to adjust and use our explosiveness to the best we could.”

The Vikings had beaten Cherry 78-65 in Kasson earlier this season, but the Tigers had a 13-game winning streak headed into Friday’s matchup.

Hayfield will play Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa or New Life Academy of Woodbury in the Class A state title game at 11 a.m. Saturday, in Williams Arena.

The Vikings, who won their first ever Class A state title last season, have had their sights set on this game for quite some time now.

“There’s definitely more pressure this year than last year,” said Ethan Pack, who had 19 points Friday. “Everybody wants to beat the best team and we’ve been ranked No. 1 in a few different polls this year. It’s tougher, but it’s definitely more fun.”

Cherry 26 35 –  61

Hayfield 32 40 –  72

Hayfield scoring: Ethan Pack, 19; Easton Fritcher, 18; Isaac Matti, 16; Zander Jacobson, 15; Kobe Foster, 4; free throws: 48 percent (14-for-29); rebounds: 30 (Fritcher, 12); turnovers: 10

Cherry scoring: Isaac Asuma, 36; Sam Serna, 11; Isaiah Asuma, 8; Nick Serna, 6; free throws: 57 percent (4-for-7); rebounds: 21 (Isaac Asuma, 9); turnovers: 14