FAIRMONT - "We (coaching staff) told our guys at halftime that the team that plays the best defense in the second half will win the game," said Fairmont head coach Jared Thompson, whose lineup clung to a narrow 41-39 edge over St. Peter by intermission on Friday night.
He was absolutely correct.
The Class 2A, No. 5-ranked Cardinals forced 12 Saint turnovers, limited St. Peter to 10 fewer shots from the floor than during the first half and produced a 17-9 rebounding edge during the final 18 minutes of their South Central Conference clash to exit Cardinal Gym with an 83-69 victory in hand.
BASELINE BANKER — Fairmont’s Ben Abel elevates to bank home a baseline jumper over St. Peter’s Aaron Leeb and Ben Johnson (21) during South Central Conference basketball action Friday night at Cardinal Gym in Fairmont. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"When you look at our team assists (21), low number of turnovers (seven), second-half rebounding and our overall shot selection tonight, and I think it's our best half of basketball of the season so far," said Thompson. "A balanced linescore with four guys in double figures (in scoring) prevents (opponents) from playing gadget defenses against us, too."
Fairmont senior sharpshooter Mitch Pfingsten, who stepped onto the hardwood court averaging a staggering 26.4 points per game, and forward Jay Ruen displayed their passing skills early and often to keep the home team even with St. Peter on the scoreboard throughout the opening segment.
After Saints' 6-foot-6 center Kolin Bartlett hit a low-post leaner to snap the third of eight deadlocks on the game, Ruen spotted Josh Eversman for a trifecta and three of his game-best 21 points before Pfingsten made his first two of 16 points for a 13-10 lead at the 10:40 juncture.
St. Peter power forward Tom Steidler, who scored all 17 of his points during the first half before running into early second-half foul difficulty, later warmed up the Cardinal Gym nets from long distance to counter Fairmont sixth man Ben Abel's back-to-back baseline lay-ins to keep the Saints' deficit at 23-22 with 7 minutes left before halftime.
Pfingsten, however, discovered his perimeter shooting touch to swoosh two free throws and a pull-up 14-footer to offset Bartlett's pair of inside buckets and Steidler's third trey at 29-all at the 5:17 mark.
Eversman, who also distributed seven assists to complement six boards, later pocketed one of his three steals before throwing down a two-handed dunk en route to a traditional 3-point play with 3:53 remaining before halftime.
Nick Rosburg countered with a 3-point play and an ensuing putback basket for the Saints before Luke Peterson spotted Ruen for a cutter to keep the Cardinals ahead 36-34 with time winding down.
After Bartlett, who tallied a team-best 18 points, hit a pair of bookend low-post baskets around Pfingsten's 15-foot jumper, Steidler went to the bench early in the second half with his third personal foul.
After the 6-5 Steidler returned 3 minutes later, he was whistled for his fourth foul with 13:39 remaining in the second half, and Fairmont capitalized during his absence.
Pfingsten's two free throws and Ruen's duck-under baseline leaner triggered the Cardinals' ensuing 12-4 run capped by Abel's 4-for-4 shooting performance from the low blocks. Abel converted two assists from Eversman and two of Pfingsten's game-high nine assists to help build a 62-50 lead with 9 minutes to go.
Ruen and Luke Becker later drained 3-pointers to polish off Fairmont's mini-delay strategy down the stretch.
Abel finished with a career-best 18 points on 9-for-12 field-goal shooting, while Ruen chipped in 13 points for the Cardinals.
Fairmont (7-1, 3-1 SCC) faces Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial at 8 p.m. Thursday in the opening round of the Bethany Lutheran College Invitational at Younge Gym in Mankato.
St. Peter (2-5, 0-1) plays host to North Lakes Academy next Friday in the first round of its holiday tournament.
Tyler Tennyson scored 19 points to steer Fairmont to a 52-47 victory over St. Peter during B-squad action on Friday in Fairmont.
Kale Fritz generated 10 points for the Cardinals, Walker Tordsen contributed nine points, Jack Waletich tallied eight points, while Noah Quiring added six points.
Caleb Lloyd netted 11 points and Carter Lloyd chipped in 10 points to engineer Fairmont's 40-36 win over St. Peter during C-squad action Friday night in Fairmont.
Tyler Johnson pulled down seven rebounds to round out the Cardinals' winning ways.
St. James 90, Madelia 68 - Zach Brandts blistered the nets for a game-high 29 points to power the Saints to a 22-point nonconference victory over the Blackhawks on Friday night in Madelia.
St. James, which held a 46-42 halftime lead, outscored Madelia 44-26 during the second half to break the game open.
Ryan Menssen contributed 16 points to St. James' winning effort, while teammate Walker Froehling chipped in 14 points.
Garhouth Dak scored 19 points to top Madelia, while teammates Kyle Schultz and Riley Benzel chipped in 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Madelia (3-5) travels to Cedar Mountain next Friday, while St. James (6-0, 3-0 South Central) plays host to Springfield at 4:15 p.m. next Friday in the Saints' holiday tournament.
Granada-Huntley-East Chain 41, Cleveland 25 - Ryan Shumski delivered a double-double performance to guide the Mustangs to a 16-point Valley Conference victory over the Clippers on Thursday night at East Chain School.
Shumski produced game-bests of 15 points and 11 rebounds to complement three steals, while teammate Trent Stensland supplied eight points and four boards.
Josh Wolter chipped in four points and three steals for GHEC, which hit 18 of 38 field goals and 4 of 9 free throws on the game.
Granada-Huntley-East Chain (2-3, 2-2 Valley) faces Blue Earth Area at 7:45 p.m. next Friday in the first round of the Buc Holiday Classic in Blue Earth.