Down but never out
Perennial state title contenders, the Maple River Eagles proved too much to handle for the Blue Earth Area Buccaneers on Thursday night, handing the maroon and gold a 68-29 loss, the Bucs’ fourth straight since an Opening Day win over New Ulm.
It was just the latest in a growing line of big wins for Maple River, which has now captured five of its last six games and topped the likes of Hayfield, Redwood Valley and St. Clair, the latter of which was blown out 62-36.
And yet, after a near-comeback of epic proportions earlier in the week, the Bucs, featuring five new starters this season, are anticipating an opportunity to rebound at their 23rd annual Holiday Tournament, which kicks off Wednesday, Dec. 28, and pits BEA and three other area teams against each other.
The boys’ action begins Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., when BEA is slated to square off with United South Central.
Belle Plaine 69, BEA 66
When the final buzzer at Blue Earth Area High School rang out Tuesday night, the scoreboard read 69-66, with the visiting Belle Plaine Tigers having edged the host Buccaneer boys on the hardwood.
The atmosphere on the court and in the stands, however, indicated otherwise. And to at least one spectator, BEA head coach Colby Swanson, it felt as if the maroon and gold had won.
Swanson may not have been alone.
Winners of three of their first four games this season, the Tigers drained three-pointers, played fast and took a commanding lead even faster, going up by as many as 21 points in the second half of Tuesday’s contest.
But the Buccaneers, trailing by 14 at halftime and in an even deeper hole with just about 10 minutes to play, rallied back with a string of their own clutch three-pointers. In the end, time worked against them, allowing Belle Plaine to smuggle a tight victory, but four straight treys and a season-best scoring streak left BEA walking tall after the clock hit 0:00.
“For us to play that hard when we were down 21 points is absolutely incredible,” Swanson said. “We just out-hustled them, out-rebounded them, made plays and guys were really playing for each other.”
After a first half that saw the Bucs fall behind 14-2 right out of the gate and struggle to capitalize on a handful of takeaways, it was clear the BEA boys were playing for something. Because no amount of pressure seemed to faze them as the night wore on, whether it was junior Blake Barnett hitting his second consecutive three with two defenders in his face or freshman forward Caelan Sanders hitting his own last-second shots beyond the arc to twice narrow Belle Plaine’s lead to three.
“It was fun to see,” Swanson said. “I was happy with how positive they were with each other even when they were down, and we have a ton of confidence now, the way we came back.”
Early on, BEA did not get its first bucket until more than six minutes into the game, when the Bucs halted a 10-0 run by the Tigers.
Back-to-back layups by senior forward Collin Bell helped the maroon and gold cut Belle Plaine’s lead nearly in half shortly afterward, and both Barnett and fellow junior Jacob Vaske traded assists to draw the Bucs even closer.
Two straight deep threes by Belle Plaine quickly afforded the Tigers a cushion, though, and just about everything seemed to go in for the visiting team as the half wound to a close.
Consecutive steals by Bell and Vaske, who posted at least 17 rebounds in prior back-to-back starts for BEA, fueled a 4-0 start by the boys to kick off the second half. But it did not take long for Belle Plaine to regain momentum, piling up blocks and outrunning BEA on the way to a sudden 51-31 advantage.
Slowly but surely, the Buccaneers began to claw their way back into contention despite a race against time. A Bell three-pointer brought the score to 55-37 before scores by Vaske and Barnett, and a fadeaway jumper by the latter eventually narrowed the Tigers’ lead to 13.
With Swanson hollering for tight defense and getting his wish with three straight stops against Belle Plaine, the Bucs began eyeing what would have been their biggest comeback of the year after Caelan Sanders sunk a pair of free throws and brought his team within eight.
The Blake Barnett show commenced right afterward, as the junior hit another jumper and back-to-back threes, the second of which came with double-team defense squarely in his eyesight, pulling BEA within four with 31 seconds to go.
Intentionally fouling the Tigers to retake possession, the Bucs kept on plugging away with another pair of Sanders free throws, and the freshman downed another trey in the waning seconds of the showdown.
As his final shot went through the net, however, time expired, leaving the Bucs without a final opportunity to erase Belle Plaine’s once-massive lead.