Boys basketball: Alexandria downs Brainerd to keep CLC title hopes alive with one game left
The Cardinals head to Fergus Falls on Saturday where a win will give them a share of the Central Lakes Conference title with Brainerd after they beat Brainerd head-to-head on Friday night. A win Saturday would give Alexandria its first back-to-back CLC titles in program history.
The Alexandria boys basketball team won its first Central Lakes Conference championship since the 2001-02 season when it took the league title a year ago. The chance at a repeat is still alive after a win over Brainerd on Friday night.
The path to a conference title was straightforward coming into Friday. A win for Brainerd would give the Warriors (16-10, 13-3 CLC) the title outright. A win for the Cardinals (20-5, 12-3) and another one on Saturday afternoon in Fergus Falls (9-15) would mean a tie for the championship.
Alexandria answered every rally the Warriors had in them as the Cardinals took a 70-59 game to set the stage for a big one on Saturday. A win over the Otters would give the Cardinals their fourth CLC title overall after also tying St. Cloud Apollo for one in the 1999-2000 season.
“It’s never been done,” senior guard Myles Sansted said of Alexandria winning back-to-back CLC titles. “The last time was 2002, and then 2021, so it would be pretty neat to get two in a row. It was one of the goals at the start of the season. We got to finish this one off tomorrow, and then we have one more goal.”
It was a playoff atmosphere on Friday night with a big crowd on hand. Both teams came out with an energy that matched the buzz in the building.
Alexandria sophomore big man Grayson Grove helped set the tone early. He had a quick 10 points that were capped off with a driving dunk that put the Cardinals up 21-11 and forced a Brainerd timeout.
Grove finished with a team-high 20 points. He continues to grow into a leading role with this team by doing a little bit of everything with his ability to score, rebound and defend.
“My teammates help with that a lot. They trust me,” Grove said. “They don’t force it into me, but they give it to me when they feel it’s the best option. They’re the main part of why I’m as confident as I am today.”
Grove had 12 points by the half, and Sansted had 8 of his 15 by then to help the Cardinals take a 30-24 lead. Sansted’s driving layup made it a 38-27 Alexandria lead with 14:57 left, but Brainerd rallied all the way back to within four points.
That’s when the Cardinals got a huge spark off the bench. Six-foot, 4-inch freshman forward Chase Thompson came in and immediately hit a floater to halt the Warriors’ rally. Thompson then hit corner threes on back-to-back possessions to help push Alexandria’s lead to 56-48 with 5:30 left.
“That’s huge,” Sansted said of Thompson. “He’s playing against us every day in practice, so he’s playing against that varsity level. He has the confidence no matter what game it is. He could be playing 3-on-3 at the ‘Y’ or in a playoff atmosphere as a freshman. It doesn’t matter to him. He’s going to shoot the ball. That’s what he does well, and that was just a testament to all his hard work.”
The Cardinals withstood a 23-point performance from Brainerd junior guard John Pecarich, who showed off deep range in hitting four threes. Sansted said the goal coming into the game was to take the best shots possible offensively and limit Pecarich.
Pecarich ended up with a game-high in points, but just four Brainerd players scored overall.
“He got to 23, but other than that, we did a pretty good job on almost everybody else,” Sansted said.
The Cardinals have responded exactly how they wanted to from a lopsided loss at St. Cloud Tech (16-9) on Feb. 28 with back-to-back wins now over Class 4A programs in Moorhead (14-12) and Brainerd. A big part of that has been matching the physicality that those kind of teams bring.
“It was a big game just for us to mentally know that we can handle the physicality and the pressure,” Grove said. “Confidence went down a little bit after that Tech game. Now we know we can handle it, and we know we can compete with physical teams like Brainerd and Tech. We needed that. A loss isn’t always bad. Gives you a lot to learn from, and we can just build off that loss.”
The Cardinals can take that experience into the Section 8-3A Tournament that starts on March 8.
First things first, there’s one more win to try to get on Saturday afternoon. The tip in Fergus Falls is at 1:30 as the Cardinals try to secure a share of the CLC championship.
“Tonight was a big win, but the job’s not finished,” Grove said. “We have to win tomorrow, so we can’t overlook the next game because it’s not a given.”
ALEXANDRIA 30 40 - 70
BRAINERD 24 35 - 59
ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Carter Steffensmeier - 7; Myles Sansted - 15; Erik Hedstrom - 15; Zach Gundberg - 5; Grayson Grove - 20; Chase Thompson - 8
BRAINERD SCORING - John Pecarich - 23; Nick Evanson - 12; Mitchell Degen - 8; Cam Engholm - 16