Determined not to have their first-ever trip to the Class A state basketball tournament result in a short stay in the winner’s bracket, the Tea Area boys turned to Connor Shaull on Thursday – and the senior didn’t disappoint.
Shaull paced the No. 5 Titans with 23 points, including 14 in the second half, en route to delivering a 60-53 win over No. 4 Spearfish at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and setting up a semifinal meeting with No. 8 Platte-Geddes tonight.
But Shaull’s timeliness was more crucial than his point total. After Spearfish (18-6) erased a six-point halftime deficit to knot the score at 38-all with four minutes left in the third, it was Shaull who keyed a 7-0 run with five points to extend the lead once again.
And when the Spartans pulled within 51-50 midway though the fourth, the senior post checked back into the game with four fouls and calmly responded with five straight points, including a 3-pointer with 3:10 remaining.
“He’s a gamer. That kid can turn the switch,” said Tea coach Chris Fechner. “All year long he has always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for any loose balls and layups in the paint. He came to play and wasn’t going to let his season end the way he didn’t want it to.”
Riley Knutson added 11 points and Gunnar Ensz nine on a day where the Titans (21-3) shot 50 percent from the floor and tallied 23 points off 20 Spearfish turnovers.
Those totals aside, the Spartans remained in striking distance throughout the second half, but squandered away opportunity after opportunity in the fourth, most apparent of all at the free throw line, where they were 7 of 17 for the game.
“After an explosive third quarter when we put 20 points on the board, we missed opportunities at the rim and we left too many empty free throws at the line,” said Spearfish coach Erik Skoglund.
“Tea’s a great team, but we’re really down about our performance today.”
Brandon Kemp led the Spartans with 16 points while Dillon Orth added 15, Blaine Bacon 12, Zack Olson 10 rebounds and Ryan Couch six assists.
Meanwhile, for this being the Titans’ inaugural trip to the state tournament, they demonstrated how they’re anything but strangers to pressure situations.
Fechner attributed his team’s ability to remain even keel to the gauntlet of the Big Sioux Conference, most notably the group’s 57-55 overtime win over conference rival Dakota Valley to earn the tourney berth. But this is still the state tournament and the nerves are still there.
“It was an awesome environment,” said Knutson, who also had seven assists. “I think we got (the nerves) out of the way at shootaround, and then they all came right back coming into the locker room.”
Looking ahead to tonight’s contest with Platte-Geddes, which knocked off No. 1 ClarkWillow Lake by crashing the boards and outhustling the Cyclones, the Titans will need a stronger performance on the glass after losing the rebounding battle 32-28.
Then again, the Titans have had an answer for just about everything this season.
“I thought we did a really good job of when they would go on their run that we could answer,” said Fechner. “We’ve had teams go on runs on us all year, but our guys can answer and they believe in one another that the next guy is going to make the play.”
TEA AREA (21-3)
Taylor Czepull 0-0 0-0 0, Riley Knutson 4-9 3-4 11, Chase Deckert 2-4 3-6 7, Mitchell Nissen 3-5 0-0 6, Gunnar Ensz 3-5 2-2 9, Adam Waterman 0-0 0-0 0, Ryan Sabers 0-1 1-4 1, Connor Shaull 8-16 4-5 23, Tarin Smallfield 1-2 1-3 3, Taylor Roemen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-42 14-24 60.
Brandon Kemp 6-20 0-0 16, Payne Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Ryan Olson 0-1 2-5 2, Ryan Couch 1-2 2-2 4, Zack Olson 2-4 0-0 4, Mason Kaitfors 0-3 0-1 0, Blaine Bacom 5-7 2-6 12, Dillon Orth 6-10 1-3 15, Michael Deichert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-48 7-17 53.
Tea Area 14 30 47 60
Spearfish 10 24 44 53
3-pointers – Tea 4-12 (Knutson 0-1, Ensz 1-2, Shaull 3-9), Spearfish 6-19 (Kemp 4-16, Orth 2-3). Total fouls – Tea 16, Spearfish 19. Fouled out – Nissen. Rebounds -Tea 28 (Smallfield, Shaull 7), Spearfish 32 (Olson 10). Assists – Tea 11 (Knutson 6), Spearfish 13 (Couch 6). Steals – Tea 17, Spearfish 11. Blocked shots – Tea 4, Spearfish 3. Turnovers – Tea 17, Spearfish 20.