MINNEAPOLIS - It was the story of two halves.
No. 3-seeded Fairmont dominated the opening 18-minute half to grab a 27-23 lead at intermission, but No. 2-seeded Esko responded to hold the Cardinals to 16 points in the second half to earn a 56-43 victory during Class AA state semifinal basketball action Friday night at Target Center in Minneapolis.
The Eskomos (28-3) advance to face the No. 1-seeded Annandale Cardinals for the Class AA state championship at 2 p.m. today at the Target Center.
SHOOTING FOR THREE — Fairmont forward Jay Ruen releases a 3-pointer from the top of the key as Esko center Kory Deadrick (31) and guard Marc Peterson (11) defend on the play during Class AA state semifinal basketball action Friday night at Target Center in Minneapolis. Fairmont guard Mitch Pfingsten (with mask) tries to maneuver around Esko’s Jaxson Turner, while the Cardinals’ Josh Eversman (far right) and Luke Becker (back right) watch the action. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
Annandale advanced to the championship with an 81-76 win over Caledonia in the other semifinal game on Friday.
Fairmont (25-5) will face No. 4-seeded Caledonia in the third-place game at noon today at the Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia-St. Paul University.
"In the first half, they (Fairmont) outhustled us to the rebounds and we played flat-footed," Esko head coach Mike Devney said in reference to Fairmont's 21-14 rebounding edge at halftime. "We were able to make a little adjustment to our offense at half to combat their defense and I think it helped us."
In the first half, the Cardinals had a balanced offensive attack, with Mitch Pfingsten and Jay Ruen each scoring seven points and Luke Becker tallying six.
Esko, however, responded in the second portion.
Senior center Kory Deadrick, who scored 12 of Esko's 23 first-half points, finished with a double-double 21 points and a game-leading 14 rebounds.
"It took Kory a while to get going tonight," said Devney. "But when he did, he was really great for us."
The Eskomos came out of halftime with a 15-5 scoring run to put the Cardinals back on their heels.
Deadrick gave Esko its first lead since the 14:41 mark of the first half, completing a traditional three-point play to make it 35-32 with 13:08 left in the game.
The teams traded possessions before Deadrick swished a 3-pointer from the wing to extend the lead to 38-32.
Josh Eversman, who scored a team-leading 15 points, scored eight of his points during the second half to give the Cardinals a spark.
"When you get to this stage, you have to play your best game every time you play," said Fairmont head coach Jared Thompson. "We didn't play our best game tonight."
After Deadrick scored to give Esko a six-point lead, Eversman drove through the Eskomo defenders to cut the lead to 38-34 with 10:29 left.
Deadrick responded with a driving layup to regain the six-point advantage, before Eversman drained a 3 from the wing to make it 40-37.
Casey Stainger, an Esko senior who scored 18 points in the game, made one of two free throws with just over nine minutes left to put the Eskomos on top 41-37.
Esko made 18 of 22 free throws in the game, including making 11 of 14 in the final nine minutes to ice the victory.
"We didn't shoot free throws very well in our last game," said Devney. "We spent the last two practices shooting lots of free throws, and I'm glad to see it paid off."
Pfingsten ended the Cardinals' three-minute scoreless streak late in the second half, driving to the basket and drawing a foul on the layup. The Cardinal guard then swished the free throw to cut the deficit to 45-40 with just over six minutes remaining.
Unfortunately for Fairmont, Esko went on another scoring spurt, 11-3, in the final minutes.
Ruen, who scored 10 points and had a team-leading eight rebounds, powered up a layup and drew the foul in an effort to spark the Cardinals with just over five minutes left. Ruen swished the free throw, making it a two-point game at 45-43.
"Give Esko's defense credit - they were able to make things difficult tonight for our shooters, and foul trouble in both halves changed so much of how we played," said Thompson. "We rebounded really well in the first half, but they got the offensive rebounds late to give them momentum and sealed the game."
Esko pulled down five defensive rebounds on its way to 30 total in the game, keeping Fairmont from generating any more offense.
Pfingsten finished with seven points for the Cardinals, while Becker ended the game with six points.
Eversman grabbed six boards to go with his double-figure scoring night.
Turner 1-2 0-0 2, Peterson 3-8 1-2 8, Olson 1-3 2-2 4, Staniger 3-11 10-12 18, Deadrick 7-15 4-5 21, Johnson 1-1 1-1 3. Totals: 16-40 18-22 56.
Eversman 6-13 1-2 15, Pfingsten 3-18 1-1 7, Ruen 4-9 1-1 10, Roggow 0-2 0-0 0, Becker 2-6 0-0 6, Peterson 0-1 0-0 0, Beebe 1-2 0-0 3, Abel 0-0 2-4 2. Totals: 16-51 5-8 43.
3-pointers: Esko 6-13 (Peterson 1-3, Olson 0-1, Staniger 2-4, Deadrick 3-5); Fairmont 6-28 (Eversman 2-5, Pfingsten 0-9, Ruen 1-5, Roggow 0-1, Becker 2-6, Beebe 1-2). Fouled out: Ruen and Eversman. Rebounds: Esko 30 (Deadrick 14); Fairmont 30 (Ruen 8, Eversman 6). Assists: Esko 4; Fairmont 5 (Pfingsten 3).