The Hillcrest Comets and Battle Lake Battlers sat down in their stance on the court while a gym packed with excited fans stood the entire game. Hillcrest entered the game unbeaten, bringing a coaches poll ranking of 4th into the showdown. Battle Lake carries the 8th place ranking and looked to take down the Comets in a rare top 10 match in Class A Basketball.
Both teams entered the game with potentially two of the top coaches in the State of Minnesota. Battle Lake gassed-up their vans and buses for a second trip to Williams Arena as the season started. Hillcrest looked to be the less talented competition that would sharpen the Battlers on their way to a State Championship. However, a few injuries is slowing the Battlers and now has the Comets peaking in creating a showdown for the Section that is likely to fan the flames of the rivalry between the small town schools.
As coach Dan Peterka walked on the court after his Battler boys rushed to warm up it was clear he was prepared for a rematch. The Battlers were badly beaten earlier in the season at Hillcrest. The 91-79 loss stung Battle Lake, who is now emerging with an 18-6 record after swapping state rankings with Comets following their January 9th contest.
Coach Preston is working to get his team set for playoffs. Hanging in their locker room gives the idea that the record isn't a concern for the Comets. Their goals are being met by playing team defense and taking care of the Basketball. The Battle Lake contest is a useful gauge to how their preparation for playoffs is going. No matter the outcome, the Section goes through Battle Lake.
From the opening tip it was clear that the game was going to be a grind-out affair. Poor shooting rattled both teams, with fans crowded on the sidelines and the humidity in the gym rising to an unbearable point. The lead passed between Hillcrest and Battle Lake in a smooth transition of handoffs. Timeouts regrouped the teams, who commented after the game that they only received half the coach's instructions because of the noise level in the gym.
Both teams clamped down on defense. With Battle Lake's gym feeling small and cramped, passing in the lane and shots from the perimeter were used to spark quick transitions. As the teams neared halftime Battle Lake looked for a final shot. Through a series of strong defensive redirections, Hillcrest pounced on the Battlers and scored to go up 18-16 going into halftime. While the Comets walked off the court a sense of resolve was felt as steely looks pierced the door to their locker room. The Comets looked for whatever advantage they could achieve in this game. Their shooting was off and the gym was uncomfortable. This was going to be a grit-and-bear-it event.
Emerging from the locker room in the second half was a stronger offensive push by the Battlers. Their work on the perimeter forced Hillcrest to buckle-down and work to redirect their offensive series. Penetration into the lane was met with a hoard of Comet defenders. The Battlers started looking for sparks from beyond the arc as they opened shots from the perimeter with Hillcrest's defenders collapsing in the lane.
Battle Lake struggled to hit anything from outside, and while both teams fought for the rebound Hillcrest's darting guards stepped in to prove difference makers. Kyler Newman pulled down 10 rebounds on the night, getting 5 from both the offensive and defensive side. Statistics were hard to come by, but Newman's consistent work and never-say-die attitude propelled him to 11 points, garnering a double-double that was the highlight for both teams who shot under 35% for the night.
With Newman streaking into the lane and working to pick up what little scraps he could find, Hillcrest Senior Jordan Foss stepped to open spots on the floor. Timely shooting propelled Hillcrest little by little over the Battlers. Foss' intangible attitude on the floor opened opportunities where he simply found himself open with a good shot and he hit it. 2 timely three pointers proved to be game changers. Foss' consistent unselfish play has earned important minutes that he capitalized with 10 points that Hillcrest desperately needed as the Battlers shutdown Chris Tungseth (15 pts.), Kyler Newman, and Sean McGuire (4 pts.).
The final Seconds revealed a score Hillcrest hasn't finished in all season. The 44-41 victory was the most satisfying for a team that consistently scores in the low 70's. Their win propelled them to win the Conference Championship for the season, as Hillcrest looks forward to a Tuesday night game in Rothsay and a Friday night game in Ortonville before they begin playoffs next Thursday.