Being on a big stage is nothing new to this group of Madison Bulldogs. Winning on that stage is nothing new, either.
On Friday night at the Premier Center in the boys Class A state tournament, the Bulldogs took another step toward a state title that would follow the one they took in football last November. There is plenty of work to do on that count with a championship game to be played yet, but things are definitely going wekk for these guys right now and they have been going pretty well all year.
A second-half surge led by Mason Leighton, a star receiver and runner for a Bulldog football team that has won the last two consecutive Class 11A football titles, was enough to change the flow of the game in a 50-39 win over the Chargers.
“The end of the third quarter we got a little momentum going,” said Leighton, a senior who scored 13 points with 11 of them in the second half. “We had to finish that out – we had a five-point lead, then we got the lead up and we kept it there.”
Top-seeded Madison (20-4) defeated Dakota Valley in the first round and came into the semifinals with a regular-season win over defending Class A champion Sioux Falls Christian to its credit.
A history of competitive games between the two schools made the Bulldogs’ 16-7 lead after one quarter look out of place. Then the Chargers (19-6) showed why, switching to a zone defense that held the Bulldogs without a point for almost six minutes at the start of the second quarter. Koln Oppold added three 3-pointers over the eight minutes and Sioux Falls Christian went into half leading 22-21.
Madison’s ability to readjust after taking the lead with close-range shots in the first quarter against Sioux Falls Christian’s man-to-man defense was going to be the key to winning and losing.
“We thought the zone could be effective against them,” Chargers’ coach Mike Schouten said. “It helped us overcome that deficit and take a small lead but they adjusted to it the second half and attacked it a lot better.”
A layup from Leighton followed by a drive on the break from Aaron Fiegen sent the Bulldogs into the fourth quarter leading 35-30. What Madison did from there looked like it was coming from players who were comfortable with securing leads and locking them down with a lot on the line.
That’s how Madison coach Michael Ricke saw it anyway.
“During a timeout in the fourth quarter I said ‘This is nothing new for you guys,’” said Ricke, who has coached the Bulldogs to four state titles from 2009-14. ‘“You guys have been here, you’ve been in close games, be it on the football field or the basketball court or wherever it is.’”
Leighton’s 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4:51 remaining gave the Bulldogs a 42-31 lead. While they struggled enormously with free throws down the stretch, the defense persisted.
“We played hard and I thought we played pretty well on defense,” Schouten said. “We just couldn’t get anything going on offense. It was the first time all year that it really happened like that. The shots didn’t fall and we had too many turnovers.”
Koln Oppold led the Chargers with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but no one else scored more than seven points in a contest where neither team shot very well. Fiegen, a 6-6 junior, added 13 points.
“It’s a tough game with them – we knew that because it is every time we play them,” Leighton said. “It’s a battle for four quarters and that’s what happened.”