Boys basketball: Alexandria earns a gritty win over Mankato East in state quarterfinals
Alexandria held off multiple Mankato East late runs in a win in the Class AAA quarterfinals and now has a matchup in the state semifinals on Thursday against the defending state champions, Totino-Grace.
MINNEAPOLIS - On multiple occasions late in Tuesday's Class AAA State Tournament quarterfinal game against the fifth-seeded Alexandria Cardinals, the fourth-seeded Mankato East boys basketball team cut its deficit to one or two points.
But every time the Cougars cut into the Cardinals' lead, the Cardinals answered as they earned a 62-57 win over the Cougars at Williams Arena and advanced to the state semifinals.
"I think this is a big step for us, not just us as a group, but our program as a whole," Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said. "I'm just proud of this group and our basketball community."
The Cardinals (25-4) never trailed in the game, but the Cougars (24-6) made them fight for every thing they got.
"When you get in a game of this magnitude where both teams are very good, it oftentimes going to come down to little things," Witt said. "The little things are actually really big things, and it's kind of ironic that they're called little things. Getting to a loose ball, getting to a big rebound, getting a good close out on defense, and making free throws are the little things we did fairly well down the stretch."
Alexandria locked down Mankato East's offense when it mattered most on Tuesday.
The Cardinals held a slim 45-44 lead with 6:30 left to play, but over the next four minutes and 53 seconds, the Cardinals went on a 10-0 run and led 55-44 with 1:37 left in the game.
"We pride ourselves on defense, and we have all year long," Alexandria junior forward Grayson Grove said. "We especially prided ourselves on defense in our section championship game, which won us the game. There's going to be games where you don't score a ton of points, but if you lock them down, you'll win a lot of the time."
Mankato East knocked down a couple of shots down the stretch, but big free throws by junior forward Grayson Grove and sophomore forward Chase Thomspon helped seal the Cardinals' win.
Alexandria shot 12-of-16 from the free throw line in the second half, and Grove made eight of his 10 attempts at the charity stripe in the second half.
Alexandria had the edge in free throws as it made 13-of-19 attempts, while Mankato East made 4-of-9 attempts.
Grove paced the Alexandria offense with a double-double, 20 points, and 10 rebounds, along with five assists and three blocks.
Sophomore forward Chase Thompson finished second on the team in scoring with 15 points.
"It was weird warming up at first with the elevated floor, but we got used to it, hit big shots, and won the game," Thompson said.
Tuesday's battle was the kind grind it out game that Witt and company expected from Mankato East.
"I just want to congratulate Mankato East; they have a very nice ball club," Witt said. "They've certainly been one of the best Class 3A programs over the last 10-to-15 years."
Alexandria jumped out to a 10-3 three minutes into the game and maintained its lead in the first half thanks to big energy plays by seniors Jacob Balcome, Jaxon Schoenrock, and Trevin Hoepner, among others.
"Our seniors play a big role on this team," Grove said. "They lead us in practice every day. If they make big plays down the stretch, the rest of us follow them. They lead by example.
Schoenrock led the Cardinals in steals with five.
The Cardinals made the most of the 18 turnovers they forced as they had a 24-8 points off turnovers edge in the win.
Alexandria took care of business against a Mankato East team who placed third at the state tournament last season.
Alexandria's 1-2-2 zone defense held Mankato East to 34.6 percent shooting from the field in the first half and 40.7 percent for the game.
"We're a pretty good shooting team, but we just didn't see a lot of zone defense throughout the season," Mankato East head coach Joe Madson said. "We used to see it against Austin all the time, but we haven't seen it all year. Against the 1-2-2 defense, you have to knock down shots and take of the ball, and we just didn't do some of that. We didn't get to the middle enough; that was our biggest problem."
The Cardinals shot 50 percent from the field in the first half (12-of-24), which helped them build a 27-23 lead at the half.
Alexandria shot 44.9 percent from the field for the entire game.
The Cardinals are now back in the state semifinals like they were in 2021 when they finished as state runner-up, but this squad looks very different from the 2021 squad.
"It's a new atmosphere, really, because not a lot of us played on that team two years ago," Grove said. "I was on the bench, but that was about it. It was a new experience, but we stayed focused and didn't let it change our game too much.
Alexandria plays the No. 1 seed Totino-Grace (22-8) on Thursday in Minneapolis at the Target Center at Noon.
Alexandria set for battle against the defending Class AAA champs
The Cardinals are headed back to the state semifinals.
In 2021, the Cardinals defeated Richfield in that semifinal, thanks to a late three-pointer by then-junior Myles Sanstead.
The Cardinals are hoping for some more good fortune in this year's state semifinals.
They'll have a tough task again as they face the defending state champions, Totino-Grace.
"We know they're a really good team, they have a lot of talent on their team, and everyone knows that, but we're not backing down by any means," Grove said.
Totino-Grace took no time dispatching St. Francis in the quarterfinals on Tuesday as it won 86-36.
Led by Ohio State commit Taison Chatman, who is the highest-rated Class of 2023 recruit in the state (36th nationally) by 247sports.com, Totino-Grace averages 78.1 points per game and allows 61.7. The Eagles also have Patrick Bath who is rated as the third-best player in the Class of 2023 in the state (227th nationally).
"Obviously, we know about their big-name players, and just from watching them a bit against St. Francis, they have some really good role players, too," Witt said. "They have good size. We know who they are and some other big names, but we're going to compete like it's another game. This is our next one up, and we'll give them their due respect because they have certainly earned that. But there will be no back down in us; I can guarantee it."
Alexandria averages 72.9 points per game and hold opponents to 52.9.
Totino-Grace has not lost to a Class AAA opponent this season. All of their losses have come against Class AAAA opponents or out-of-state opponents, and they didn't class any Class AAA opponents until the Section 4AAA Tournament.
The winner of the Alexandria versus Totino-Grace game plays at 5 p.m. in the state championship game on Saturday at the Target Center. The loser plays in the third-place game at the Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia University-St. Paul at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
The semifinal game and championship game will be live-streamed on KSTP, while the third-place game will be live-streamed on NSPN.tv.
Alexandria - 27 35 - 62
Mankato East - 23 34 - 57
ALEXANDRIA TEAM STATS - FG - 22-49; 3-PT - 5-15; FT - 13-19; Rebounds - 29; Assists - 20; Steals - 12; Blocks - 4; Turnovers - 14; Fouls - 12
MANKATO EAST TEAM STATS - FG - 22-54; 3-PT - 9-30; FT - 4-9; Rebounds - 29; Assists - 16; Steals - 4; Blocks -1; Turnovers - 18 Fouls - 15;
ALEXANDRIA PLAYER STATS - Grayson Grove - 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal; Chase Thompson - 15 points, 4 rebounds, Bralyn Steffensmeier - 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal; Jaxon Schoenrock - 9 points, 3 rebounds, 5 steals, 5 assists; Dawson Roderick - 3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals; Mason Witt - 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal
MANKATO EAST PLAYER STATS - Giles Lancaster - 6 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds; Brogan Madson - 16 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists; Manaow Omot - 5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block; Ganden Gosch - 10 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals; Carsen Schweim - 9 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals; Lucas Gustafson - 3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists; Dwayne Bryant - 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal; Dwuan Reliford - 4 points, 3 rebounds