by Eric Oslund
The Rogers Royals entered into their section semifinals matchup with St. Cloud Tech on Saturday, March 11, with a bit of a bitter taste in their mouths. These two teams played one another back on Jan. 3, and it was a game the Royals felt they could have won, and probably should have won.
Instead, they lost 55-54 on a last-second three pointer, and that game was really the deciding factor that gave them the three seed in the section tournament and St. Cloud Tech the two seed. The Royals wanted to make sure everyone knew that was a mistake.
They quickly jumped all over their opponents, and found themselves up 16-2 a little over four minutes into the game.
“A couple of things,” head coach Joe Belka said when asked what allowed his team to get off to such a quick start. “Obviously, one, our kids played with great energy. It always helps when you make a few shots early, which we did.”
St. Cloud Tech was able to settle down a little after the Royals’ explosive start, and eventually made it an eight-point game with six minutes left in the first half. But then the No. 3 seeded team was able to get rolling once again.
The Royals defense would step up for the remainder of the half, not allowing St. Cloud Tech to score another basket, which allowed their offense to go on a 15-point run and take a 38-15 lead into halftime.
“We just defended really well. That’s been our calling card, been our M.O., then entire season. We’ve been a really good defensive team,” Belka began.
“We’re a team that likes to press. It’s a little more difficult on a college floor, a little more space to cover and what not, so we started the game with our press. More than anything else so the kids had the mindset, ‘We’re not going to change the way we’ve been playing all year long.’”
The second half of this game wasn’t much different than the first, as the Royals refused to let up on both ends of the court. They continued to pressure their opponents, and then take advantage of miscues, which led to a 65-49 victory.
And, like they have been doing all season long, it came from a very balanced offensive attack with Mitch Spilles and Matt Carik both scoring 18 points, Jordan Belka adding 12, and Nick Camarote finishing with eight.
“That’s honestly been our M.O. all season long,” the head coach said of their scoring. “Matt’s our leading scorer at 16.5, Jordan’s our second leading scorer at 16, but on any given night, when we run set plays, we don’t run them for one specific person. We run a set play, more than anything else, to get a little bit different action. We have a group of guys that can all make shots. We have a group of guys who really don’t care who scores the basketball. The kids just care about what the final score on the scoreboard says.”
The Royals’ semifinal win propelled them into the section finals where they will face the No. 1 seed in their section, Maple Grove.
These two teams met back on Dec. 9, in a game where Maple Grove came away with a 68-41 win. It may seems like it was a lopsided win, but Joe Belka believes it was a closer game than the score shows, and also that some off-court factors played into his team’s loss.
“For our kids, it was a packed house, it was our youth night, it actually happened to be Maple Grove’s first game of the year and Maple Grove travels really well because, one, they are a large community, and, two, they are such a talented basketball team,” he began. “I think our kids, early in the season, when you walk into our gym and it’s a packed house, our kids were a little bit in awe. Maple Grove came out and they jumped out like 17-2. Then we settled in and with five minutes to play it was an 11-point game. We actually had five consecutive stops, we had an opportunity to take the 11-point game and maybe get into single digits and we just came up empty handed. Then Maple Grove pulled away, like the team that they are, and beat us by 20.”
The two teams will square off in the section finals Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m. It will be played at Monticello High School, and the Royals know if they hope to come out with a win, and earn a trip to the state tournament, they will need to slow down Brad Davison and Tywhon Pickford. They are Maple Grove’s two star players, and combined for 54 points in the semifinals against Elk River.