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Boys Basketball: Free throws irritant again as Warriors lose to Cards

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If the Brainerd Warriors focus on making free throws at Wednesday’s practice, they’ve got a shot to push the Willmar Cardinals again when the teams play Thursday at Willmar.

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The Warriors made only 4 of 10 foul shots in the second half of Tuesday’s 74-69 loss to Willmar at Brainerd High School. They did not make a free throw in the game’s final 11.5 minutes.

Otherwise, Brainerd drained 10 threes and did a respectable job of defending against the second-place team in the Central Lakes Conference

“Willmar is a really good team,” Warriors coach Scott Stanfield said. “They’re probably predicted to win the conference. I think we played them tough. Once again free throw shooting wasn’t good for us and we had a couple putback finishes that we didn’t finish, but to their credit they’re very good, very athletic.

“I thought our kids played one of their better games of the season from start to finish and that’s a credit to them. We know where we stand. Leading up to the section this is the kind of game you want to be in, against a good team, so that’s a good sign.”

Tuesday’s game was rescheduled twice because of inclement weather.

“We’ll go down there Thursday and battle them again,” Stanfield said. “It’s tough to play there. That’s the way the schedule worked out. It’s not the best thing, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

Brainerd’s Isaiah Smith and Willmar’s Kyler Johnson tied for game scoring honors with 23 points apiece. Grant Reuer added 12, Kobe Ahonen 10 and DJ Kraemer nine off the bench for the Warriors, who have lost four of their last five. Tyler Stegeman contributed 21 for the Cardinals and Joel Carter 12.

The Warriors twice trailed by 11 in the second half before putting the heat on Willmar, which has won seven of its last eight. Trailing 70-64, Reuer’s three pulled the Warriors to 70-67 with 36.7 seconds to go.

Stegeman sank a free throw with 33.1 seconds left for a 4-point Willmar lead before Reuer’s layup with 24.3 seconds to go tightened the deficit to 71-69. Three Johnson free throws in the final 16.1 seconds accounted for the final margin.

Three-point shooting kept Brainerd close. Smith provided five from downtown, Reuer two, Kraemer two and Logan McElfresh one. The Warriors made 10 of 26 from behind the arc.

“We shot the three well,” Stanfield said, “and (Willmar is) a very good three team, too. Kyler Johnson is a very good shooter, and so is Stegeman. He’s as good a guard as we’ve seen running the point. Their other guard (Carter) is pretty athletic and quick.”

In the first, Willmar built an 18-9 edge following an 8-point run as Stegeman scored five of the eight. But the Warriors kept plugging away. McElfresh and Smith combined to bury three 3s and give Brainerd a 32-30 lead, its first lead since early.

Willmar, which shot 52 percent (16-of-31) in the first half, eventually regained the lead and maintained it as Stegeman’s jump shot with about five seconds left gave the Cardinals a 41-37 halftime edge.

Stegeman slashed his way to the hoop for 15 first-half points, while Smith led Brainerd with 13. The Warriors shot just 38 percent in the first but hit 6 of 12 from behind the arc.

The Cardinals’ front line of 6-foot-6 Adam Nibaur, 6-5 Austin Grove and the 6-4 Johnson gave Brainerd trouble, not so much in the paint but on the perimeter. Johnson hit four threes and Nibaur two. Grove and Nibaur both fouled out.

“We don’t have the size this year to battle them but I thought Logan McElfresh and Isaiah Smith and Nick Schwen and Kobe did a good job against them.

“I was happy with the effort of our kids. (Willmar was) just a little bit better tonight.”

Willmar 41 33 — 74

Brainerd 37 32 — 69

WILLMAR

Tyler Stegeman 21, Joel Carter 12, Kyler Johnson 23, Adam Nibaur 6, Austin Grove 7, Dylan Schueler 5. FG 26-52 (50 percent). FT 13-19 (68 percent). 3-point 9-22 (41 percent). Turnovers: 16.

BRAINERD

Grant Reuer 12, Logan Madsen 4, Isaiah Smith 23, Nick Schwen 4, Kobe Ahonen 10, DJ Kraemer 9, Logan McElfresh 7. FG 25-61 (41 percent). FT 9-17 (53 percent). 3-point 10-26 (38 percent). Turnovers: 9.

MIKE BIALKA may be reached at mike.bialka@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.

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