by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River entered basketball sectionals with a four-game losing streak, but coach Randy Klasen felt the last two of those were encouraging and helpful for the second season.
“It was really important last week for us to start playing better, and we did, even though we lost both games,” said Klasen.
That sharpened play continued Tuesday as the Elks (16-10) beat Brainerd 69-53 in the Section 8AAAA opener at home, sparked by Matt Keller, sophomore guard, with 22 points.
The Elks had closed Northwest Suburban Conference play with losses of 72-58 to Osseo and 85-75 to Armstrong.
“We played much better against Armstrong there than we did at home,” said Klasen. “We took care of the basketball better and defended better. It might sound crazy saying this, but losing two games last week was really a good week for us.”
Clay Elrod added 17 points in the last home game of a stellar three-year career. Junior guard Mitchell Weege scored 13 points, and junior forward Devell Miller had seven points and 10 rebounds leading the Elks to a 34-22 rebound edge.
The No. 3 seeded Elks (16-10) advanced to the semifinals against No. 2 Buffalo (21-6), slated for Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at St. Cloud State.
The Elks took some real drubbings, too, against Champlin Park, Osseo and Armstrong the NWSC.
“That’s our conference,” said Klasen. “We have teams that can really make you look bad.”
Looking ahead, the Elks feel they have a good shot against Buffalo, a team they beat 60-52 on the Bison court on Dec. 3. Buffalo (21-6) drubbed Rogers 79-53 Tuesday and has won 17 of its last 18.
“For sure, we can beat them,” said Keller. “We’re going to out-hustle them and out-work them. It will be a fun game.”
“It’s a winnable game, but a tough game,” said Klasen. “It will be a battle, like it is any time you play Buffalo. They are a lot like us. They defend well and they are very good in the half court.”
Top-seeded St. Cloud Tech beat Bemidji 86-61 and No. 4 St. Michael-Albertville beat Moorhead 75-60. Tech (22-3) faces STMA (14-10) at 6 p.m. Saturday followed by the Elks vs, Buffalo.
Keller, sophomore point guard, made five driving layups as he shot 8-for-12 from the floor (2-for-5 on three’s) and 4-for-6 at the line in his first 20-point game. He had nine in the first half and 13 in the second.
“Our first half was a little shaky,” Keller said, “but, in the second half, we decided to feed the post more, and it created an opening in the middle for us to drive.”
The Elks trailed by seven in the first half, edged ahead 32-29 at the break, and broke it open early in the second half. They led 48-33 after hitting three straight 3-pointers — by Keller, Clay Elrod and Mitchell Weege — followed by Keller sinking three free shots when fouled outside the arc. A drive by Zach Ernst from the wing capped a 14-2 run.
Klasen said Keller had a demanding job this year, stepping in at point guard as a sophomore in such a tough conference, but has done well.
“About two-thirds of the way through the season, he struggled a little, started to force things, and his game got away from him a little, but lately, he has been feeling pretty comfortable in what he’s doing on the floor.”
Isaiah Smith led Brainerd (14-12) with 11 points and Grant Reuer was next with nine.
Brainerd beat the Elks in last year’s section finals but both teams graduated heavily. Only Elrod returned as a top-notch player.
The Elks, going to the hoop repeatedly, made 23 of 30 shots inside the arc and 5-for-17 on three’s for a total of 28-for-47. The only downside was their 8-for-17 free throw shooting. “We’re shooting 75 percent as a team, the best we’ve ever had,” said Klasen, shaking his head at that performance, which, fortunately, came on a night they didn’t need free throws.
Elk River scoring — Matt Keller 22 (3 ast), Clay Elrod 17 (7 reb), Mitchell Weege 13 (4 stl), Devell Miller 7 (10 reb), Wyatt Schuster 2, Zach Ernst 2, Zeke Delain 4