RED WING – The scene inside the high school gymnasium here Saturday night was everything a road-tripping scribe could hope for. A full house and two boys basketball teams battling hammer and tong, one coming in undefeated and the other hoping to put an end to that distinction.
Implications? This one was big in the Big Nine Conference, in Class 3A Section 1 playoff jockeying and in the 3A state rankings. Red Wing was 20-0 overall, 16-0 in the Big Nine and carried the No. 1 spot in the polls. Austin was ranked No. 4 at 16-4 overall and 14-3 in Big Nine play. The first time they met this season, Red Wing won by nine points in Austin on Dec. 15.
Another key statistic: The Wingers came into the game with a sterling defensive number: their opponents had averaged only 47 points per game.
Defensive skill and intensity isn’t built from scratch starting on the first day of practice in November. The current Wingers have been learning about defense since they were little.
“To be honest with you I kind of inherited all these guys from traveling basketball way back when,” Red Wing coach Doug Toivonen said, mentioning two of his senior starters. “Ben Munson’s dad and Carson Bryan’s dad really taught these kids to take pride in their defense. When you’re the varsity coach and you inherit these kids as freshmen and sophomores, and you see how hard they work every day, it’s just a joy.
“We feel like we’re a pretty athletic group and it’s not very often that you get a team, especially high school kids, to buy into defense. But our kids really have. Every defensive drill we do in practice, these kids go 100 percent. Sometimes I have to stop practice; it’s like, ‘OK, I get it, we don’t need to get anybody hurt.’ ”
Those words from Toivonen came after the Wingers moved to 21-0 with a 56-47 (yes, 47) victory that was forged on an anvil of defense. Austin was held to nine points in the opening 16 minutes, including an eight-minute scoreless stretch. The score was 25-13 at halftime and it was all about defense and discipline.
“They put us on lockdown,” said Austin coach Kris Fadness, whose Packers lost to DeLaSalle in the 2013 and 2014 Class 3A state championship games. “They’re very good, they’re athletic and they’re physical. They’re very disciplined on defense. They make you work for every shot, they make you run through screens because they’re very physical.”
The second half was a marked change from the first. Austin played smarter offensively and hit enough three-point shots to stay in the game. Threes by Tate Hebrink and Duoth Gach cut Red Wing’s lead to seven with 10 minutes to play, but a three by Bryan and two close-range shots by the 6-foot-7 Joe Sevlie pushed the Wingers’ lead back to 10, 39-29.
The final push by the Packers was again sparked when Gach and Hebrink hit threes. The score was Wingers 47, Packers 41 with two minutes left and the large group of Austin fans who had made the 85-mile drive were whoopin’ it up.
Gach kept firing but missed back-to-back threes and teammate Oman Oman fouled out trying to snag a rebound; Bryan made two free throws. After another Packers miss, Gach fouled out; Munson hit a free throw.
You know the rest of the story: fouls and free throws. Red Wing made nine of 11 from the line in those last two minutes to seal the deal.
“Their defense is what makes them so good,” Fadness said. “And you have to be impressed with their senior leadership, because down the stretch they were making their free throws. There’s a reason they’re No. 1 in the state right now. They’re well-coached, they’re very disciplined, they do all the little fundamentals right.”
Red Wing is talented and hard-working on offense but so much of its success stems from defense that scoring can almost appear to be a secondary matter. The Wingers attempted only 32 field goals in the 36-minute game; they made 17 of them, and shooting 53 percent will win plenty of games. Austin made 19 of 44 (43 percent).
The difference was at the foul line, where Red Wing hit 18 of 26 and the Packers made four of nine. Another key number was total rebounds: 30 for the Wingers and 17 for Austin.
Credit the Packers, who are an exciting albeit young team. Their leading scorers Friday were all sophomores: Both Gach with 18, Duoth Gach with 12 and Hebrink with eight. Sevlie and coach’s kid Travis Toivonen scored 14 each for the Wingers, Munson had 12 and Bryan 10.
I asked Doug Toivonen if there was pressure from being unbeaten.
“I think the pressure you feel is when a whole bunch of people come to watch, you feel like because you’re 21-0 you have to prove things to everybody,” he said. “We’re not blowing-people-out-of-the-water 21-0. We have a nice team that’s showed up to play every night. I don’t think we have a lot of superstars on our team; I think we have a team that plays really well together and we’ve found ways to win basketball games.
“We really needed to show up against Austin and I was real proud of the effort. It was a really nice win.”
The Big Nine is having a banner year in boys basketball. Lurking behind Red Wing in the standings are Rochester John Marshall (18-3 overall, 16-1 Big Nine) and Austin (16-5, 14-4), with Northfield and Mankato East on the perimeter ready to throw wrenches.
John Marshall’s only league loss was a 10-point game at Red Wing on Jan. 12 and the rematch will come in the regular-season finale. John Marshall is a 4A team, leaving Red Wing and Austin as the top two teams in 3A Section 1.
“We’re hoping we get a shot at them again,” Fadness said.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 384
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,691
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn