The West Central Area boys basketball team may have played under the radar a bit this year with a team like Ashby going undefeated through the regular season out of their subsection, but those who have watched the Knights closely know how good they are.
West Central Area’s four losses have all been by single digits. One of those was a 56-53 loss against Ashby in the season opener on Jan. 18. Given a chance to avenge that loss on Saturday night, the Knights (15-4) did so emphatically with a 61-38 win over the South’s top-seeded and Class A’s second-ranked team in Ashby (19-1) to advance to the 6A semifinals.
“I love our guys,” WCA senior point guard Grant Beuckens said after scoring a team-high 18 points. “Our guys knew we could do it from day one, and here we are showing it. We proved ourselves tonight, and we’re just going to keep rolling.”
Knights’ longtime head coach Kraig Hunter wasn’t surprised. In the midst of close regular-season losses to section opponents in Ashby, Parkers Prairie and Hancock, he saw a team that was as good as anyone in the 6A field. He told his players that throughout the season. It was just a matter of playing with a little more calm in those big games.
“That’s the thing we’ve gotten better at,” Hunter said. “We practiced it and had talks with them to just slow down, get more ball reversals, especially late in the game. We’ve just become a good, poised, disciplined team.”
West Central Area outscored the Arrows 30-17 after the break, but it was a burst going into the half that swung the tide. In a one-possession game, junior forward Ryder Staples went on a personal 8-0 run with two made threes and two free throws that made it 31-21 at halftime.
“Ryder does that every game. He’s huge,” Hunter said. “He’s one of our best threats. When he gets going, I think the team kind of feeds off of him.”
Beuckens, the Knights’ senior floor general, wasn’t going to let a double-digit lead slip away. He was a huge piece of the puzzle in West Central Area’s run to the section title game a year ago, and that experience played a big part on Saturday.
“It helped us so much,” Beuckens said. “We’ve all handled pressure in the playoffs. We know what that playoff atmosphere is like.”
Beuckens hit a three from the left wing that made it a 39-27 game almost five minutes into the second half.
“I don’t know what the season stats are, but I’m pretty sure he’s averaging less than one turnover a game,” Hunter said of Beuckens. “When you handle the ball that much, that’s impressive. He’s a three-year starter and a four-year varsity player, so that’s what you expect out of him. We’re proud of him.”
Ashby head coach John Holsten left the season opener impressed by Beuckens and his ability to impact the game in multiple ways, and he called Beuckens the best player on the court on Saturday night in the rematch.
“He’s their leader. He has experience. He has talent,” Holsten said. “He knows how to play the game, and he’s very well coached by Kraig.”
Knights’ senior Xander Bontjes hit perhaps the biggest three of the game when he found himself wide open in the corner to make it 42-27 with 11:39 left. The Knights went on to extend their lead to more than 20 points through much of the final minutes.
The Arrows hit 10 threes in their regular-season win over the Knights. They hit just one on Saturday, while West Central Area knocked down seven triples. Three of those came from sophomore guard Jacob Strunk off the bench.
“We were in pretty severe foul trouble, and they kept making shots,” Holsten said. “They wouldn’t cooperate. They got most of the 50/50 balls, and as much as it pains me to say it we got outcoached big time. We didn’t have them ready to play.”
Holsten knows how bad this stings for his players right now, but he also knows they have a lot to be proud of after one of the best seasons in program history. It included a Little Eight Conference championship and the No. 2 ranking in the state much of the year.
“They made many more plays than we made tonight,” Holsten said. “They just played better. It’s high school basketball. It’s going to happen…(Shots) just weren’t falling tonight, and there’s a reason for that. They were playing really good defense on our perimeter shooters.”
Ashby junior forward Jacob Cook had a game-high 20 points on a night when just five Arrows scored. Jaden Norby wrapped up his standout career for Ashby with eight points.
The Knights wanted to prove that last year’s run to the 6A championship was not a one-year appearance. That this program could reload from losing standout seniors like Gage Staples, Jacob Bright and Jack Van Kempen.
“This shows what kind of guys we got,” Beuckens said. “Everyone out here gave 110% tonight. Everyone showed up ready to play.”
Now they have to do it all over again. Second-seeded Hancock (15-5) beat Parkers Prairie (15-5) Saturday night in a 56-48 final. The Knights will travel to Hancock for a 7 p.m. tip on March 24 with the subsection title on the line.
These two teams split during the regular season with the Knights winning 62-58 on Jan. 28 and the Owls winning 48-46 on March 1.
“They’ll be ready,” Hunter said of his guys. “They respect those teams, but it’s been that way all year. There’s four really good teams in the North and the South. We don’t care what seed we are. We know we’re all pretty even, and we think we have just as good a chance as anybody.”
WEST CENTRAL AREA (15-4) 31 30 - 61
ASHBY (19-1) 21 17 - 38
WCA - Ryder Staples - 12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist; Cole Anderson - 3 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal; Jacob Strunk - 9 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal; Grant Beuckens - 18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals; Tate Christenson - 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists; Nathaniel Junker - 2 points; Xander Bontjes - 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal; Brady Reeve - 8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
ASHBY SCORING - Derrek Bartz - 4; Hunter Norby - 2; Torin Olson - 4; Jacob Cook - 20; Jaden Norby - 8