Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Litchfield knocked off Melrose for the second time this season with a convincing 73-59 win in the Section 6-2A championship game Friday night at a packed and boisterous Halenbeck Hall.
The Dragons advance to the Class 2A state tournament next week in Minneapolis. The Dragons (22-5) beat the Dutchmen 65-59 in overtime back on Dec. 21 in Litchfield.
Both losses Melrose (29-2) suffered this season came to Litchfield.
“We tried to come back, we just dug ourselves too much of a hole,” Melrose head coach Ryan Dusha said. “We were right there and this place got rocking. We showed the heart of a champion in the second half, but so did they. Litchfield didn’t want to give up this section crown — and it showed.”
The Dragons took second place in the Class 2A state tournament last season when they lost to Plainview-Elgin-Millville in the championship game.
“The kids have been here before, three of them started for us last year,” longtime Litchfield head coach John Carlson said. “Experience is always good to have in a game like this.”
Litchfield went on a 27-3 run from the 12:25 to 5:57 marks of the first half after getting down 11-5 early.
Back-to-back threes from Zach Whitchurch put the Dragons up 28-11. Whitchurch was on fire, to say the least. He finished with 25 points on 7 of 10 three-point shooting. Center Riley Pater added 16 points and nine rebounds for Litchfield.
“They were up on us early, but we’ve been here before,” Whitchurch said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had an offensive run like that. It was incredible. I honestly didn’t know it was a 27-3 run. Wow.”
Said Carlson: “Whitchurch wanted everybody to know what kind of shooter he is. He really heated up. He worked hard to get open and our guys got him the ball. He’s got a great stroke.”
Melrose didn’t back down in the second half. The Dutchmen had the chance to cut it to a one possession game with 2:22 left.
Melrose’s Isaac Sawyer got a steal at midcourt, but went in for a layup at a bad angle and missed. Whitchurch was fouled after getting the rebound and hit both shots to put the Dragons back up 64-57.
Litchfield ended the game with an 11-2 run after that.
“We knew that Melrose was going to make a run, they’re such a great team,” Whitchurch said. “We came up short at state last year. It feels great to get back. Hopefully we can put some wins together and get a title.”
Melrose standout and St. Cloud State recruit Scottie Stone had 23 points, but it came on 7 of 25 shooting.
Stone went 2 of 12 from three-point range. The Dragons’ Dylan Koll guarded Stone for most of the game.
“They’re very physical and one of the best defensive teams in the state,” Dusha said. “They chased him around, but other teams have done that all year.
They have good help-side defense. Any time Scottie came off a screen, they had a guy waiting for him.
“Scottie tried to put the ball on the floor and create in the lane, I give him credit for that. He just wasn’t hitting shots. He normally makes those.”
Melrose was down 40-22 at the half. The Dutchmen expended a lot of energy in getting back into it.
“We were tired. We were punched in the stomach in the first half,” Stone said. “Nobody was mad at each other in the locker room. We couldn’t have played any harder in the second half.
“I got some good looks, they just didn’t fall tonight. That’s basketball. It’s the way it is. Luckily I’ll have some more time on this court to work things out.”
LITCHFIELD — Zach Whitchurch 25, Dylan Koll 9 Joel Madsen 7, Riley Pater 16 (9 rebounds), Zach Kinny 6 (5 assists, 6 rebounds), Cameron Sundmark 7, Alex Hendricks 3, Eric Madsen 7. Totals: FG 25-53, FT 13-17, REB 33, PF 17, TO 10.
MELROSE –Ryan Elfering 6, Mitch Niehaus 12 (6 rebounds), Mitch Reller 2, Isaac Sawyer 12 (6 rebounds), Scottie Stone 23 (4 assists), Seth Noll 3, Ty Reller 1. Totals: FG 21-57, FT 14-20, REB 36, PF 16, TO 12.
Halftime score: Litchfield 40, Melrose 22.