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Aberdeen Christian reaches State B title contest

Aberdeen Christian’s Jackson Isakson, left, moves the ball up the floor as Dell Rapids St. Mary’s Connor Libis, right, gives chase in the closing minutes of Friday night’s semi-final game at the South Dakota Class B boys basketball tournament in Wachs Arena. Photo by John Davis taken 3/19/2021

For a team that’s never experienced the biggest stage in high school basketball, the Aberdeen Christian Knights sure look comfortable.

The Knights found a rhythm early, held off a rally late and moved into the championship game in their first appearance at the Class B State Boys’ Basketball Tournament. Christian upended Dell Rapids St. Mary 60-53 in the semifinals at Wachs Arena Friday night.

Playing in the biggest game in school history so far, the Knights exploded for 26 first-quarter points, nailing five three-point field goals.

“We came out firing. Just a really fun environment, fun atmosphere. It was good to see us hit shots,” said Christian Coach David Rohrbach. “It was a good pace to the game and I thought we responded really well. We were knocking down shots and playing with a good tempo.”

Ethan Russell nailed back-to-back-to-back three-pointers (as he has before this post season) to fuel the surge which left the Knights with a 26-16 lead after the opening eight minutes.

“He was huge,” Rohrbach said. “He likes to string together three in a row, and that third one was probably our best offensive sequence of the night.”

The Knights played with a cushion all game long until DRSM cranked up the defensive pressure down the stretch. The Cardinals eventually cut a 14-point deficit down to five with 1:49 left, but could get no closer.

“It was kind of a buzz saw the first quarter and we just couldn’t get over the hump. They were ready go to. They’re a really good team,” said St. Mary Coach Colby Fitzergerald. “We were trying to get it to five at halftime, five before the fourth quarter. We really never could get it down to where it was manageable, where we didn’t have to do things we weren’t used to doing.”

A big factor in the contest as Christian’s ability to contain DRSM dynamo Connor Libis. While the senior point guard still led his team with 14 points, he went more than 21 minutes without scoring from early in the second quarter to the final minute of the game.

Rohrbach credited Jackson Isakson for his role in helping to slow down Libis, the state’s third all-time leading scorer.

“He did an excellent job on him all night, just absolutely played good solid defense,” Rohrbach said. “He just contested everything and I thought our help was excellent as well.”

Isakson said there was a strategy that included Christian 6-foot-6 center Brent Ekanger.

“We were forcing him baseline all night and Brent was there to help,” Isakson said of guarding Libis. “So I forced him into Brent and if got by me, Brent was standing there ready to help. I denied him the ball all night. So if he was on the baseline I was up above him.”

Still the Cardinals found other weapons to make one final push down the stretch. Christian came up with enough stops to record the win.

“You have to think, who are the shooters, who are their best players?” said Christian senior Jett Becker. “You have to see them and lock them down first.”

Russell led Christian with 18 points, Malek Wieker followed with 17, and Isakson contributed 12.

Ashaun Roach-Valandra added 12 points to the DSRM total and Ty Brown finished with 10.

The Cardinals (20-5) meet Viborg-Hurley for third place at 5 tonight.

“We’re going to try and send out our eight seniors on a high note,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve meant a lot to our program. It would mean a lot to everybody to do that. We’ll be ready to go.”

Meanwhile the Knights will continue to soak up the environment that they have never experienced before.

“We’ve been dreaming for this for so long,” Becker said. “After COVID shutting state down last year, we just want that state championship so bad, so we brought it.”

Isakson knows that this evening’s title contest will feature more of the same elements.

“The State B atmosphere is just the best,” Isakson said. “It will be fun.”

The Knights (20-4) will face top-seeded De Smet in the championship game at 7:45 tonight.

“If you’re a competitor you love to go compete against the best,” Rohrbach said. “We expected De Smet to be here and we wanted a shot at it, so I think it will be a lot of fun.”

DELL RAPIDS ST. MARY (20-5): Ashaun Roach-Valandra 5 0-2 12, Max Herber 2 2-4 6, Ty Brown 4 0-0 10, Connor Libis 4 5-6 14, Sam Palmer 2 4-4 9, John Pica 0 2-2 2. Totals 17-49 13-18 53.

ABERDEEN CHRISTIAN (20-4): Ethan Russell 5 5-7 18, Brent Ekanger 3 1-2 7, Jett Becker 2 0-0 6, Jackson Isakson 4 2-4 12, Malek Wieker 6 3-4 17. Totals 20-45 11-17 60.

Dell Rapids St. Mary 16 26 34 53

Aberdeen Christian 26 36 46 60

3-point field goals – Roach-Valandra 2, Brown 2, Libis, Palmer; Russell 3, Becker 2, Isakson 2, Wieker 2. Total fouls – Dell Rapids St. Mary 20; Aberdeen Christian 14. Rebounds – Dell Rapids St. Mary 35 (Roach-Valandra 10); Aberdeen Christian 26 (Ekanger 11). Turnovers – Dell Rapids St. Mary 9; Aberdeen Christian 9. Assists – Dell Rapids St. Mary 7 (Libis 3); Aberdeen Christian 11 (Ekanger 3, Wieker 3). Steals – Dell Rapids St. Mary 6 (Libis 4); Aberdeen Christian 4 (Wieker 3).

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