by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Gavin Doppler is guard-sized at 6-feet even, but plays the post for Zimmerman. Still, when he stole the ball from Princeton with his team leading by just 59-55 in their section opener Friday night, he couldn’t resist.
“Three guys in front of me, but I just kept going,” said Doppler, who went coast-to-coat, pulled up for the layup, got hacked on the arm, and added the free shot to open a 62-55 lead. He made two more free shots a minute later and it was 64-55.
“Great feeling,” he said.
The No. 3 seeded Thunder (23-4) broke open what was a close game until then to defeat the Tigers 80-65 at home in their Section 7AAA opener. They’ll take on No. 2 Duluth Denfeld (20-7) in Duluth on Tuesday evening.
Doppler, one of 10 seniors playing his final home game, tallied 14 points. The team’s floor leader for three years, Caleb Lunning, had one of the best nights of his career with 25 points, including three 3-pointers and 12-for-13 free throw shooting. Adam Fordahl, senior guard who’s missed much of both the soccer and basketball season with injuries, was a spark off the bench with nine points. Nate Christensen added 13 points and Corey Foyt eight as seniors really took center stage. Season scoring leader Jake Wilson, 6-6 junior forward, had a quiet seven.
“That hasn’t hit me yet. It probably will later tonight,” said Fordahl when asked about the emotions of the final home game.
Fordahl was more definitive about Zimmerman’s prospects for pulling off a couple upsets of northern teams and going to state.
“We definitely feel we have as good a chance as anyone,” he said.
Princeton (14-12), losers of two conference games to Zimmerman, had the Thunder back on their heels early, leading by as much as 20-8. The Tigers stuck with the Thunder until the last five minutes when the Thunder’s depth, and an avalanche of free shots, wore them down. Zimmerman would finish an amazing 31-for-35 at the line.
“Free throws were huge for us and we played some good defense,” said Thunder coach Ben Kvidt, “but give Princeton credit. They shot really well tonight, the best I’ve seen them shoot, and played good defense.
“Princeton and Zimmerman is a huge rivalry. Bigger than us and Rogers. They’re right next to us and we’ve played them a lot (in conference games).”
Senior guard Joss Jondahl drilled seven 3-point shots and totaled 23 points for the Tigers. John Jednak, senior forward, added 19 points.
Fordahl sank seven points to help the Thunder scramble back from 12 down to a 33-33 tie by halftime.
“Adam gave us some quality minutes,” said Kvidf. “He hit some big shots, including that 3-pointer in the first half, and made a couple steals.”
About the big early deficit, Fordahl said, “I think it was nerves. We are all very confident, but still, it’s crunch time. It’s the playoffs … Then the adrenaline kicked in.”
With the score 50-50, Caleb Lunning got Zimmerman’s big push started as he cranked in a 3-pointer from the side, then stole the ball and snaked in for a three-point play on a layup. layup. Whe Princeton crept back within 56-55, his twin brother Ethan stole the ball, dribbled across the line and bounced him a pass and Caleb sank another jumper.
Up 59-55, Doppler chimed in with his steal and three-point play.
“They were running play they’d done three or four times,” he said. ” They wanted to get the ball to No. 5 (Jedneak) so I knew where the pass would go and I just stepped in front.”
Eleven straight free throws padded the Thunder’s lead. For the game, along with Lunning’s dozen, Christensen was 6-for-7, Doppler 4-for-5, Foyt 4-for-4, Adam Fordahl 2-for-2.
Duluth Denfeld clobbered Cloquet 83-39 and will now host Zimmerman. Top-seeded Grand Rapids (22-5) pummeled Chisago Lakes 74-35 and will host Hermantown (18-9), a 72-50 winner over Hibbing.
“Denfeld is a very good team,” said Kvidt. “They go 6-6, 6-6, and 6-5, and have big guards, and good shooters.”
The finals will be held Friday evening in Cambridge.