Packers survive first test
By Scott A. Kolb
Post-Bulletin, Austin MN
Seniors on the Austin High boys basketball team wanted their final home game to be a memorable affair, and they achieved that goal with a thrilling win over Simley in the section opener.
A big crowd jammed into the Packer Gym on Wednesday night and it got loud when their local heroes rallied in the second half to win 65-55 in the Section One, Class AAA quarterfinal game. Austin senior forward Marcus Gunderson led the home team to victory with a season-high 21 points.
"The crowd really helped us get this win," Marcus Gunderson said. "We had a white-out all week at school and the fans gave us energy in the second half. We knew they weren’t going to be that big inside, so I took it strong to the basket."
This was a back-and-forth affair throughout the first half. Muresek Mena, who had a game-high 26 points on the night, hit the initial basket for the Simley Spartans. Packers senior guard Nate Justice promptly returned the favor with a drive to tie the game for the first time.
Justice added 12 points in the win for the Packers, and Connor Gunderson was also in double figures. There was nice balance from the rest of the team with Will Felten, TJ Fritz, Steven Rizzi, and Chris Jahr all contributing to the offense.
It would remain a tight contest in the first half. Mena hit a 3-pointer for Simley to tie the game at 12-12. Marcus Gunderson gave the Packers the lead right back with a hoop inside at the 11:07 mark.
Simley next hit back-to-back treys and retook the lead. A long ball from Tyler Nelson made it an 18-14 lead for Simley with 7:45 to play in the first half. Nelson had 25 points in the first meeting with the Packers, but this was his only field goal of the night. Austin’s defense would be a key factor in the second half.
"We had a great crowd and it looked like the fans were having fun," Austin coach Kris Fadness said. "The guys played good defense, and we were efficient offensively. Marcus got some nice touches and he took over on the inside."
A pair of quick baskets from Marcus Gunderson once again tied the score with five minutes left in the half. The Spartans extended their lead back to four points, but Justice nailed a trey in the closing seconds to bring the Packers within one at halftime.
Mena continued to be a thorn in the side of the Packers defense as the Spartans guard kept his team ahead early in the second half. Mena hit a trey to make it a 34-32 lead with 12:44 remaining in the game, then the Packers usurped control with a decisive 9-0 run.
"We’re a good first half team, but the second half has been a problem all season," Simley coach Ben Bushaw said. "We turned the ball over a little too much and they scored in transition. There were a couple of plays which really hurt us during their run, and they played better defense."
The road to the section semifinals started with a nice feed pass from Marcus to Connor Gunderson. This tied the game for the last time and Connor was also fouled on the play. He made the free throw and the Packers were on top to stay.
After a change of possessions, Connor Gunderson missed a 3-point attempt. He fell down, but got up in time to steal a pass from the Spartans. He fired the ball ahead and Chris Jahr was wide open. Jahr’s basket put the Packers run in full throttle and the crowd went wild.
Defense fueled the race to victory as the Packers got the ball back. Justice scored and Marcus Gunderson followed a short time later for a 41-34 lead with 10 minutes to play. Bushaw called a time-out and the Spartans did stage another comeback, but the damage had been done.
Down the stretch, the Packers countered every run from the Spartans. Mena made a it a four-point game at the 4:28 mark, but Rizzi returned fire with his second trey of the night. Mena again scored to make it a five-point lead for the Packers with the clock winding toward three minutes.
The next sequence of events sealed the deal. Marcus Gunderson missed the front end of a bonus attempt, but Felten tipped the ball back to Connor Gunderson. He found Justice for a hoop in the lane and the lead was back to seven. Justice then delivered the knockout blow by canning a trey with 1:20 left to play.
"I was trying to put the dagger in them," Justice said. "The seniors didn’t want to go out with a loss in our final home game. We did what we had to do, and now we’re moving on to the semifinals."
Fritz added the final touches to the playoff win by scoring all seven of his points from the free throw line in the last minute.
"This was nice way for our seniors to go out on their homecourt," Fadness concluded. "It was a good team win with everybody chipping in. Marcus was a beast for us, and now we get to play at the big arena in Rochester."
Austin (18-7) moves on to play in the Section 1AAA semifinals on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. in the Mayo Civic Center Arena.
Muresek Mena 26, Thomas Sims 12, Tyler Nelson 5, Jordan Lange 4, Mike Verway 3, Stefan Domeier 3, Steve Johnson 2.
Marcus Gunderson 21, Nate Justice 12, Connor Gunderson 12, TJ Fritz 7, Steven Rizzi 6, Will Felten 4, Chris Jahr 3.
Halftime — Simley 25, Austin 24.
Free throws — Simley 3-8, Austin 12-16.
Three-point goals — SIM 8-26 (Mena 3, Sims 2, Verway 1, Domeier 1, Nelson 1). AUS 5-16 (Justice 2, C.Gunderson 1, Rizzi 2).
Rebounds — SIM 24 (Mena 6); AUS 27 (Felten 8).
Turnovers — Simley 16, Austin 14.
Fouled out — SIM, Nelson.