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Hastings boys basketball team advances to section finals

The Hastings boys basketball team has an opportunity Friday night to do something no other team from Hastings has done - qualify for the state tournament.

Hastings will play Owatonna at 6:30 p.m. at the Rochester Civic Center. The winner advances to the state tournament and will play next Wednesday at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. The loser goes home.

"This is where we wanted to be," first-year coach Chad Feikema said "This has been our goal. We've said that from the very beginning."

Once the fall sports season ended, Feikema began asking basketball players what was significant about March 19, 2010. Many didn't know the answer.

"I told them they needed to have the answer by our first meeting," Feikema said. "When they came to that first meeting, they knew it was the section title game."

Throughout a brutal regular season schedule, Feikema and the Raiders kept pointing to the section tournament as the goal. Winning a Suburban East Conference title wasn't a realistic goal. Making the section finals was. And here they are.

"We've been able to stay focused," Feikema said. "It's a long season. We've been able to work together well. That, combined with the fact that we have good players, has led us here."

Hastings is led by a trio of three-year starters, including Nick Gmiterko and Shane Monjeau, the team's leading scorers. Mike Hill, a senior point guard, is also a three-year starter.

Hastings last made the section title game in 2006, and the team lost.

That same night, Feikema was coaching Albert Lea against Lakeville South. Feikema's Tigers lost that game.

This will be the fourth trip to the section finals for Feikema, who is seeking his first trip to the state tournament as well. He also led teams from New Life Academy and Swanville to the finals.

Making the state tournament would turn a good season into a great season for the Raiders and Feikema.

"We've had a good season, a successful season in a lot of ways," Feikema said. "The difference between getting (to the state tournament) and not getting there is still dramatic."

The Huskies

Owatonna is the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Hastings is the No. 2.

Owatonna has a 20-7 record. Hastings has a 14-13 record.

"They're a good basketball team," Feikema said. "They don't have a lot of size. They're very guard-oriented. They shoot a lot of threes and they rely on their pressure defense. They will run a full-court press. They will trap.

"They need to force turnovers to be successful. They key for us will be simply taking care of the basketball, and not turning it over against their pressure and their traps."

Owatonna is led by 6-3 junior guard Vaughn Thada, a three-year starter.

"He makes them go," Feikema said. "He scores, and he creates scoring opportunities for his teammates. He's a very intelligent player."

Thada had 27 points in the section semifinals.

"I like where we are at," Feikema said. "Like I told our team, I think we're the best team in the section, but the best team doesn't always win."

Vs Rochester Century

Qualifying for the section title game was no easy feat. Hastings had to beat No. 3-seeded Rochester Century here on Saturday. Hastings did so, 58-55.

Hastings jumped out to a 9-2 lead early and held a 26-20 advantage at halftime.

"Tony (Hammes) hit a three on first possession, and we got up right away," Feikema said. "After we got out to that lead, they switched to a 1-2-2 zone. We maintained control of the game, but the zone changed the tempo."

After halftime, Century scored the first two baskets and cut the Hastings lead to two points. Hastings then countered with a run and eventually grew the lead to as many as 13 points.

"I thought we were in control of the game pretty much throughout, until those last two minutes," Feikema said.

The last two minutes were certainly wild ones.

With just more than two minutes on the clock, Hastings led by nine points and had the ball. Quickly, though, the momentum turned.

Century's Nate Kruissebrink hit two three-pointers and Eric Sherden hit one. All the while, Hastings struggled at the free throw line. All of a sudden, the game was close.

"Kruissebrink and Sherden hit some really difficult shots," Feikema said. "It wasn't like we collapsed defensively, or didn't defend them well."

Hastings led 56-53 late in the game, and Century had the ball. The Panthers had a couple good looks at the basket but couldn't get anything to fall. On each attempt, though, Century was able to get the offensive rebound to keep the possession alive. With 12 seconds to play, Century called a timeout and set up a play for Kruissebrink. He didn't have a shot and passed it to Sherden, who hit a shot from outside. Was it a two-pointer? Or was it a three-pointer?

With Hastings leading by three, it was a big question. Two referees were watching the shot and both said, after a discussion, it was a two-pointer. That meant Hastings led 56-55 with just 1.9 seconds to play.

Hastings got the ball in bounds and Hammes was fouled immediately. He hit two free throws to push the lead back to three. A half-court shot by Century missed its mark, and Hastings won, 58-55.

The game could have been a lopsided one for the Raiders. For the season, Hastings has converted on 69 percent of its free throw attempts. In Saturday's game, Hastings hit just 16 of 35 attempts, or 46 percent.

"If we shoot our normal percentage, it's not even a game," Feikema said. "If we had made our free throws, we would have probably led by 20."

Hastings was led in scoring by Shane Monjeau, who finished with 23 points. Nick Gmiterko had 14, and Darius Wilkerson had 13. Tony Hammes finished with 7, and Dan Guelle had 1.

Vs John Marshall

Hastings advanced to the semifinals by beating Rochester John Marshall Wednesday night in a blowout, 84-45. Hastings scored 47 first-half points, hit eight three-pointers and got to rest its best players for much of the second half.

"We played really well," Feikema said. "We shot the ball well all night."

John Marshall kept the game close through the first few minutes of the first half, but the momentum changed in a big way when Wilkerson, a sophomore, got a breakaway two-handed dunk. Wilkerson was fouled on the play and made the free throw.

"That was the first dunk of his career," Feikema said. "At that point, the flood gates opened. We were a little nervous. It was our first playoff game. Once Darius had the dunk, then the flood gates kind of opened and we took off from there."

Monjeau and Gmiterko continued their stellar play. Monjeau led Hastings with 32 points, and Gmiterko had 13. Mike Hill scored 10 and was the only other Raider in double figures.

The game was a great opportunity for many Hastings players to get into the action. In the second half, Feikema was able to play a good number of players who haven't been able to see a lot of varsity action on the season, and that was reflected in the box score.

A total of 11 players made it into the scoring column, including Josh Harstad, a senior, who finished with six points. He hit two three-pointers.

"Josh just loves the game of basketball," Feikema said. "To see him come in to a playoff game and knock down a few shots, that was great. He works his tail off. It was great for him."

Guelle had four points. Hammes had three, Ellis Williams had five, Aaron Stevens had two, Wilkerson had five, Jon Sindt had two and Jake Cox had two.