by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
With six seconds left in Elk River’s section championship duel against Brainerd on Thursday evening, Porter Morrell and coach Randy Klasen finally knew it was time to give up the ghost.
Brainerd was leading by four and going to the free throw line as Morrell, shoulders sagging, brushed against Klasen on the sideline. Klasen gently clutched the valiant senior guard’s head to his head to his shoulder for several seconds. With a tight smile the coach whispered condolences, then sat the boy down.
On the other end, Jack Sauer capped Brainerd’s 74-68 victory with two free shots, giving the Warriors (28-1) the Section 8AAAA crown at St. Cloud Tech High School and their first state trip since 1991.
Morrell had poured in 30 points, leading the Elks to the brink of their first state berth since 2006 and himself to the brink of a nice milestone. Both quests came up empty. The two free shots that brought the Elks within 72-68 gave Morrell a career total of 999.
“Porter had a heckuva game tonight,” said Klasen. “It just wasn’t quite enough to put us over the top.”
The Elks as a whole had a heckuva game, leading 52-51 with six minutes left against the No. 8 ranked Warriors who had beaten them Elks 57-36 on Feb. 2.
“They are a great team, give them credit. They have lost only one game all year,” said Morrell, crestfallen but composed, ten minutes after the game. “They shoot the ball so well, and they play as a team.”
The Elks finished 20-9 against a formidable schedule, including playoff wins over Tech and Moorhead. They beat one state tournamet team (Edina) and possibly another, Osseo, which faces Park Center tonight in a section final.
“We wanted to go to state,” Morrell said, “but when it’s all said and done, you look at it and we had a 20-win season and made it to the section finals. A couple plays here and a couple there and maybe we’d win. We had a great season.”
Clay Elrod, the only one of the Elks’ big three back next year, netted 19 points. The other, Bryan Edwards, worked the blocks for 14 more while beset by early foul trouble. Edwards had about a dozen rebounds to lead the Elks to a 34-23 edge.
The Elks came out on fire to take a 26-13 lead but Brainerd forged ahead 31-28 by halftime with an 18-2 run sparked by four straight 3-pointers.
It was a dogfight most of the second half before the Warriors reeled off 11 straight points, again sparked by back-to-back three’s, these by Chris Bowman, for a 63-52 lead.
“They had their runs at the end of each half and we had ours earlier in each half,” said Klasen, “and we just had a hard time answering that last one they had. That kid had a couple really big three’s to get some separation from us.”
Brainerd’s nimble 6-foot-4 senior forward Jacob Blong worked the baseline for 24 points, including 12-for-17 on free shots. Sauer added 16 (three 3-pointers) and Bowman hit 12.
“Brainerd is a very good team,” said Klasen. “Our kids just battled really hard. It was another really good high school game.”
With time winding down, the Warriors gave the Elks a tiny opening by missing five of six free shots and Morrell brought them within 72-68 with two driving layups and two free shots. But the Elks were down to their last dozen seconds and Brainerd clinched with Sauer’s two free throws.
While both Brainerd bursts were keyed by three-point shooting, their edge on three’s was only seven to five. Their biggest margin was 27-for-42 free throw shooting to the Elks’ 13-for-19 . The Elks had a big foul imbalance for the second straight game and couldn’t overcome it this time like Monday when they nipped Moorhead 79-77 in overtime.
Also crucial for Brainerd were their 12 steals against a team that handles the ball pretty well.
Brainerd, which trailed Buffalo 57-51 Monday before taking charge to win 73-62, kept its poise again.
“We have finished strong our last two games and that’s been a credit to our kids all year,” said Scott Stansfield, Brainerd coach.
Stansfield lauded Elk River as “the best defensive team by far we have faced this year.”
He said the Elks forced them to change the way they operate on offense.
“They took us out of a lot of stuff we wanted to do,” said Stansfield. “They are a very well-coached team and they hedge and recover on screens as good as any team I have played against … In the second half, we started moving the ball more and we got a few better looks.”
Klasen noted that Brainerd’s big run late in the half took place with Edwards sidelined with two fouls.
“It really hurt us with Bryan having to sit that much in the first half,” said Klasen.
Morrell’s thousand-point bid was discussed briefly on the bus ride home when the coaches did a little arithmetic and came up with 999, and informed him of that fact, said Morrell, contacted again later to check on that situation. “One point,” lamented Morrell. Sometimes in sports as in life you can do a great job and it’s not quite enough.
About the 2012-13 season, Klassen reflected:
“We had a great effort every night, and great attitude. The kids were an extremely easy group to coach. They were a lot of fun, and worked hard all the time. But it’s really disappointing because the kids’ hearts were set on making it to state. We did all the right things to put us in a situation where it was possible, but we didn’t quite get it done tonight.”
Elk River wound up with no state teams and five section runners-up in winter sports — boys and girls basketball, girls hockey, boys Nordic Ski and girls gymnastics.