Looking at the state tourney Lion boys

Kai Bjerke gets to the basket against Charles City. Photo by S. Lee Epps
S. Lee Epps

The 2019 Spring Grove basketball boys extended the program's impressive string of highly successful basketball seasons, but they distinguished themselves as the first Lion lads to play in the state basketball tournament.

The boys broke a single-game shooting record while playing away from home and excelled in many aspects of the game - but overall, their statistical hallmarks were ball-handling and free throw shooting.

The unprecedented season ended at Concordia College in St. Paul with the clearly-jubilant Grove guys hoisting the Class A state third place trophy in front of a large throng of exuberant fans after a thrilling 72-68 overtime victory over No. 2 seed Ada-Borup.

Two days previous, the unseeded Lions had bumped off top seed Springfield in a stunning (to many) 78-67 quarterfinal at historic Williams Arena.

In between those two titanic triumphs came the equally, if not more stunning 67-34 semi-final frustration at the Target Center against No. 4 seed and eventual state champion Henning.

That dejection was quickly followed by that final triumphant overtime - the first extra period played in seven seasons.

Ultimate success often hinges on do-or-die, last-seconds plays. One or two bounces of the ball at the end of a game often is the difference between playing at state or not advancing that far. 

Most observers concluded that state champion Henning (31-1) was the best team in the Class A tournament bracket. The Hornets were 24-0 before closing the regular season with an 77-74 overtime loss to Parkers Prairie.

But the Hornets, like the Lions, advanced to state with two section routs and two section escapes. Henning, after a two-point win in a section quarterfinal, faced Parkers Prairie again in the section 6A championship game - this time a 60-58 Henning win. 

One third (10) of Spring Grove's 30 games were decided by single-digit margins. The Lions won seven of those 10 close encounters. Getting to the state tournament depended on taking two nail-biters in the section tourney.

Against Houston in the quarterfinals, the boys broke a late stalemate with an Alex-Folz--to-Takoda Boyd fast-break tie-breaker. Free throws by Kai Bjerke and then from Folz allowed the Lions to advance, 45-42.

The final score was eerily similar when a rebound, buzzer-beating basket by Ethan Matzke sent Spring Grove past Hayfield 45-43 in the section semi-finals.

Not better, but more often

The Lions averaged over 61 points per game while limiting the opponents to a 47-point average. They won 25 of 30 games despite not shooting better than their opponents. 

Spring Grove shot well from both the field overall and from 3-point range, but so did the opponents. The Lions shot even better from the free throw line, but so did the opposition.

SG and the opponents both shot 49% from two-point range, 34% from 3-point land and 43% from the field overall, From the foul line, the Lions shot 66% to the opponents' 67%. 

SG outscored their rivals by shooting considerably more often rather than by shooting better. That resulted from rebounding and ball-handling.

With the eighth best free throw shooting percentage in the record book, these Lions are now one of only six teams in program history, to make more free throws (304) than their rivals attempted (288). Spring Grove got to the line for an average of 15.4 free throws per game while limiting the opponents to 9.6 charity attempts.

From the field, the Grove guys attempted 1,534 shots, 312 more than the opponents. That is an average of 10 more shots per game.

Opponents aired up 17 3-point shots per game while the Lions attempted 21 treys per contest, the fifth most in the record book.

Into the net, off the rim

Shooting is always critical but is not always consistent. In high school basketball, shooting 50% or better from the field usually results in victory. Shooting close to 60% almost always guarantees a win.

In 30 games, the Lions shot 50% or better from the field 10 times, winning nine times. The lone loss came when SG shot 50% and Rushford-Peterson shot 51%.

In two high-profile showdowns, the Lions shot 59% at home against Randolph and then 55% versus the Rockets in the section championship game. 

The season high was an amazing 67% at Lanesboro - most likely a Spring Grove record as the best shooting night in the 20 years for which single-game statistics are available. 

In the state quarterfinal win over Springfield, Spring Grove had its second-best shooting game of the season, 60%. He next day, the Lions suffered through a season-low 26% against a tough Henning defense. The Hornets shot 57%in that state semi-final versus Spring Grove after only 39% the night before.

Opponents won four of the six games in which they shot 50% or better against Spring Grove.

The "D"

Every player knows that sometimes shots go down, and sometimes they do not. But defense has as much to do as anything with not only how well but often how often the other team shoots. 

It was obvious that Henning was a very good defensive team. In their three state tournament games, the Hornets allowed 59, 34 and 42 points.

Wade Grinde, early in his head coaching career, once said the most important statistic was the shooting percentage of the opponent, or in other words, the Lions' defensive field goal percentage.  His emphasis on defense has been consistent throughout his 24 seasons at the helm.  The 2019 Lions averaged 11.2 steals per game.

The 2019 Class A State Coach of the Year can reflect back at a program record .731 winning percentage, 460 varsity victories, 11 seasons with at least 20 wins, 14 conference championships (including the last nine) and three postseason tournament crowns. After four consecutive unbeaten SEC campaigns, the Lions' conference winning streak has now reached 74 games.

Collecting caroms

Spring Grove averaged nearly 28 rebounds per game, about seven more than the opposition. That rebounding margin ranks seventh all-time among the 33 Lion teams for which statistics are available.

But rebounding superiority went back and forth from night to night. Spring Grove outrebounded the opponents in 17 of the 30 games.

Most of the overall backboard margin came on the offensive glass, helping to explain why the boys attempted more shots than the other guys.

Power of possession

Statistically, the Lions were at their best while handling the ball. In 38 seasons of record keeping, this Lion squad ranked fourth in fewest turnovers  - 11.9 per game compared to a pretty good 14.9 lost possessions for the opponents.

Ranking among the top 10 boys teams in assists (16 per game), these Lions logged the fifth best season ever according to an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.35, just ahead of the previous season's 1.30. 

In 36 years of record keeping, 11 teams of Spring Grove boys have had more assists than turnovers - a rare accomplishment in high school basketball.

The 2019 team had more assists than lost possessions in 20 of the 30 games. Amazingly, six of the primary seven-player rotation each had more assists than turnovers.

Getting to state

The 2019 team was the third to play as many as 30 games and the fourth to win as many as 25.

While several individuals capped remarkable high school cage careers by rewriting the record book this winter, the 2019 Lions did not set any statistical team season records. But they did achieve what none of their predecessors had.

In a long-standing tradition of program excellence, this team performed well on both ends of the floor. They excelled in attempting more shots than the opponents from both the field and the free throw line, partly because they outrebounded the other teams most of the time. But the statistical hallmarks of this team were ball-handling and free throw success.

Statistics aside, an experienced cast of playmakers found ways to make plays when it really counted - at the end of closely contested games - especially in postseason tournament play. 

It was fitting that the finale saw the Spring Grove boys repeatedly deliver in the clutch both in regulation time and their first varsity overtime to cap the most successful season in program history with a post-game trophy celebration in front a packed gymnasium - at the state tournament.

Editor’s note: The focus of this article is team achievement. Coverage of individual achievement began with all-conference coverage and will continue with upcoming coverage of team awards.


Looking at the Lions - BOYS BASKETBALL 2019

Points/game……….SG 61.3, opponents 47.0

Rebounds/game……SG 27.9, opponents 20.8           

Assists/game………SG 16.0, opponents 9.1

Turnovers/game…...SG 11.9, opponents 14.9

Steals/game………..SG 11.2, opponents 4.5

FT att./game……….SG 15.4, opponents 9.6

FT made/game…….SG 10.1, opponents 6.4

FT pct.…………….SG 66%, opponents 67%

3-pt. att./game……SG 21.1, opponents 17.0

3-pt. made/game....SG 7.3, opponents 5.8

3-pt. pct………….SG 34%, opponents 34%

2-pt. pct………….SG 49%, opponents 49%

Field Goal pct……SG 43%, opponents 43

Blocked shots  …...SG 45, opponents 64

Fouls/game………SG 11.5, opponents 13.5