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Patrick Johnson / Forum Communications Co., Published March 26 2010

Fergus Falls Hillcrest loses in opening round of Minnesota state boys basketball tournament

MINNEAPOLIS – The role of underdog served the Fergus Falls Hillcrest Lutheran Academy boys basketball team well in the section playoffs, but seventh-ranked Ellsworth was just a little too much for the Comets in the Minnesota Class 1A state quarterfinals Thursday.

Hillcrest Lutheran fell 58-53 to Ellsworth – the defending Class A runner-up – in its first trip to the state tournament since 2001.

“I think we were the underdog, but I don’t think there’s a guy in that locker room that really didn’t think we could win the ballgame,” Hillcrest Lutheran head coach Gregg Preston said. “These guys stuck to task and did their job about as well as I could have hoped from a ball team.”

To earn a trip to state, Hillcrest Lutheran (27-3) upset fourth-ranked Ada-Borup 62-56 in Friday’s Class 1A, Section 6 championship after beating No. 1-seeded Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 54-40 in the section semifinals on Tuesday, March 16.

In the state quarterfinals, while the stat sheet was nearly identical in the game for both teams, Hillcrest Academy was 5-for-19 from 3-point range, compared to the Panthers’ 50 percent from behind the arc, which Preston said made a big difference between a win and a loss.

“I know our guys probably wished we would have shot the ball better from the perimeter,” Preston said. “But, we had pretty good shots. The tough thing is that our guys feel like we had six or seven really good looks that we didn’t convert. You need to hit every one of those at the state tournament.”

The combination of sophomore guard Casey Schilling and senior center Trevor Gruis propelled Ellsworth (26-5) past the Comets.

Schilling led the way for the Panthers with 24 points and seven rebounds, while Gruis had a double-double with 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Senior forward Devon Apgar had a team-high 15 points and nine rebounds, while senior guard Jared Schultz had 10 points for the Comets.

Losing 50-40 with 5:40 remaining, Hillcrest Lutheran put together an 8-0 run, cutting the Panthers’ lead to 50-48 with 2:10 left to play. However, Ellsworth hit six of its eight free throws down the stretch to keep the Comets at bay and advance to the state semifinals for the fourth straight year.

Schultz, the Comets’ leading scorer, said he would have liked to win the state championship, but that he was proud of his teammates and how far they came.

The Comets have six seniors on its section roster – Schultz, Apgar, Andrew Hohncke, Justin Olsoe, Ethan Wetzel and Jeff Schmidt.

“We gave our best effort tonight, we just didn’t come out on top,” Schultz said. “But, it was definitely one of our best games of the year. I’m not complaining at all. This was just an awesome year.”

E: Schilling 8 6-7 24, Buntjer 2 2-2 6, Gruis 5 4-5 14, Nolte 1 2-2 5, Huisman 3 0-2 7, Kramer 1 0-0 2, Chapa 0 0-2 0. Totals 20 14-20 58.

FFH: Apgar 5 4-7 15, Hohncke 3 1-1 9, Schmidt 0 1-2 1, Schultz 4 2-2 10, Tungseth 2 2-2 7, Stroud 3 0-2 6, Stender 1 0-0 3, Wolderich 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 10-16 53.

Half: E 31, FFH 25. 3-point goals: Schilling 2, Nolte, Huisman, Hohncke 2, Tungseth, Agpar, Stender. Rebounds: E 32 (Gruis 14), FFH 29 (Agpar 9). Assists: E 9 (Gruis 4), 11 (Tungseth 4). Totals fouls: E 10, FFH 18. Steals: E 7 (Gruis, Nolte 2), FFH 8 (Agpar 3).

Patrick Johnson is a writer for the South Washington County Bulletin, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.