Basketball: Thunder senior group’s run ends with 68-64 loss to Denfeld

Zimmerman guard Caleb Lunning chased a loose ball along with Denfeld's Sergei Hanka (4) and Cal Anderson (5) with Nate Christensen trailing. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

 

by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

The best class of basketball players to pass through Zimmerman High School could always count on their speed, athletic ability and depth to pull them through.

However, they ran into a Duluth Denfeld team with equal amounts of those prize commodities, except stretched over longer bodies, on Tuesday evening, and that spelled the end of the line for the Thunder.

Thunder junior Jake Wilson was game high with 22 points. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

The Hunters held off the Thunder 68-64 in the Section 7AAA semifinals in Duluth, ending ZHS’s best two-year run of hoops that included 45 wins, a state trip last year and a conference crown this year.

“We wanted this so bad. It’s a heartbreaker, no doubt,” said Caleb Lunning, who closed a three-year tenure at point guard. “But we’ve always got fight in us, and it showed in this game.”

The Thunder were on the ropes twice in the second half but stormed back both times to pull within a basket. In fact, the final shot of Lunning’s career might have won the game, but his 3-point attempt with the score 66-64 was a tad long.

“Zimmerman pushed the ball really well and they were probably the fastest team we played all year,” said Hunter forward Andrew Laughlin.  “They were really organized, and fundamentally sound, and played as a team. I felt pretty confident a couple times … but they really came back.”

The Hunters were led by 6-5 senior guard Derek Meger with 20 points and 8 rebounds, while 6-5 senior center Sam Humes added 14 points and 6 rebounds, and 6-6 senior Laughlin 10 points and 6 rebounds before fouling out.

Zimmerman was led by Jake Wilson, their lone junior starter. The 6-6 forward nailed 22 points and snagged 8 rebounds. Nate Christensen and Caleb Lunning potted 11 points each and Gavin Doppler 8.

Denfeld won the rebounding battle as expected 36-24, and further compounded Zimmerman’s problems by hustling back and defense all night to keep the Thunder’s high-octane transition game in check. The Thunder needed a strong shooting game and didn’t get it. They made six 3-pointers but missed quite a few (stats on that not available at this posting) while going just 12-for-19 at the line.

Nate Christensen sank three 3-pointers for the Thunder. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

“They had four really good players and they rebounded really well,” said Lunning. “They are quick like us, but I think the size disadvantage is what really hurt us.”

Denfeld knew that its edge of a two or three inches per man would not be enough to beat the Thunder.

“They are very athletic and get up and down the floor really well,” said Hunter coach Jeff Nace. “Our main concern was our transition defense, and I thought we did a good job of getting back on defense. We did not give up many baskets after we scored. We know they like to take it down the sideline and we practiced a lot stopping that the last two days.”

No. 2 seeded Denfeld (21-7), playing without a 20-ppg scorer at guard who was declared scholastically ineligible two weeks ago, advanced to the section finals against top-seeded Grand Rapids (23-5), Friday evening at UM-Duluth.

Zimmerman finished 23-5 on the heels of a 22-9 campaign last year, raising the school record for wins each year. Seniors bowing out were starters Caleb and Ethan Lunning, Doppler and Christensen, top subs Kyle Connelly, Adam Fordahl and Corey Foyt, and reserves Brandon Smith, Phil McChesney  and Tony Obinger.

Gavin Doppler drove the baseline for a layup late in the game, geting past Sam Humes (33) of Denfled. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

Lunning and his dejected teammates knew they had accomplished much.

“We won our conference championship, and we were the best senior class to come through here, and we did big things for the program, so that’s something we can be proud of.”

Zimmerman trailed 12-4 early, edged ahead 22-20 on their only good burst of 3-point shooting in the game (two by Christensen, one by Wilson), and fell behind again late in the half, going to the break down 34-31, with Wilson scoring 15 of those.

The Thunder trailed by just 42-41 before Denfeld went on a 10-0 run capped by Laughlin’s dunk after teammates forced a turnover, making it 52-41. The Hunter’s momentum fizzled for a few minutes, though, especially  when Laughlin was called for charging, his fifth foul, idling the  team’s current scoring leader with 10 points and six rebounds for the night.

“Oh, man, end my career on the bench, fouled out?  That would really be tough,” said Laughlin. “I am so proud of all our guys for pulling it out. They had my back.”

Zimmerman clawed within 56-55,  only to see Denfeld spurt away again. The Hunters made it 62-55 when Meger snagged a defensive rebound and  flung the ball 3/4 the length of the court to Humes for layup — with Humes fouled on the play and the Thunder bench getting a tech foul at the same time.

Denfeld had three free shots and an inbounds coming, but blew their chance to break the game open, going 0-for-3 at the line and then missing a layup, with the Thunder rebounding.

“After that technical, we missed three free throws, and then a layup! It could have gone from  seven points to 12 in a heartbeat,” said Nace, shaking his head at the absurdity of it.

That gave Zimmerman new life and the Thunder hunkered down like exhausted but gritty wrestlers going for late takedowns. They made steals in three of four possessions and got two points after each – layup by Foyt (who was fouled  but missed the freebie), two free shots by Foyt, two more free shots by Foyt — and the score was 64-62 with 1:01 left.

Zimmerman sent Denfeld to the line with :57 left and Meger sank two free shots for Denfeld. Wilson countered with a snaky drive that pulled the Thunder back within two at 66-64.

The Thunder got a break as an apparent Denfeld basket was waved off. It turned out the ball had been kicked a couple seconds earlier but nobody heard the whistle.

Thunder fans were pensive momentarily as their team trailed by 8 in the first half. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

 

So the Thunder had the ball with a half-minute left, down by two. They worked it around until Caleb Lunning had an opening just outside the top of the key. His 3-pointer looked like it might go right down the hatch with 13 seconds left. Not so.

“I thought it was in. I really did. It was tough, watching it hit the back rim.”

A tie-up on the rebound gave Denfeld the ball on alternating possession with 13  seconds left. The Thunder had to foul again, sending Cory Bolen to the line. The 6-6 junior reserve sank two free shots for the clinchers.

Duluth Denfeld 68, Zimmerman 64

Zimmerman …………. 31-33—64
Duluth Denfeld …….. 34-34—68

Zimmerman — Caleb Lunning 11, Kyle Connelly 4, Ethan Lunning 3, Jake Wilson 22, Nate Christensen 11, Corey Foyt 5, Gavin Doppler 8 … Team: 23 FG (6 3FG), 12-19 FT, 24 rebounds

Duluth Denfeld — Hunter Muklebust 5, Sergei Hanka 9, Cal Anderson 2, Andrew Laughlin 10, Sam Humes 14, Derek Meger 20, Cory Bolen 8 … Team: 28 FG (3 3FG), 9-15 FT, 36 rebounds

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