MAYER – Step through the doors of Mayer Lutheran High School and into the gym, and you will find something special. It’s not only the Crusader boys basketball team that is putting on a show in recent weeks, it’s the parents, students, and crowd that’s loving every minute of it, as well, that makes the gym a special place to be in right now.
Hosting MN River Conference rival Jordan Friday night, the energy and thrill of the game of basketball was on full display as the Crusaders and Hubmen battled it out for the hopes of keeping their conference title hopes alive.
In the end, it was the Crusaders who locked down defensively down the stretch, while handing the Hubmen their first conference loss of the season in a thrilling 54-46 victory on their home floor.
The Crusaders, who kept their conference title hopes alive with the win, held the Hubmen to just 46 points in the game, and closed the game out on a 27-5 run in dominant fashion.
“That’s us,” Mayer Lutheran coach Pat Buchanan said. “That’s us locking in. That’s when we started to work in the second half. The focus was on defense. They were our second game. We gave up 88. We looked in the mirror. That has not happened since. I don’t think we’ve given up more than 62 points since.”
Trailing by five at the half, it was the defense that stepped things up for the Crusaders after the offense was up to par in the first half.
Mayer Lutheran senior Garrett Tjernagel had his hands full all game long dealing with Jordan’s Eric Tiedman and Andrew Niebuhr inside the paint.
“That just showed that we were ready tonight,” senior Garrett Tjernagel said. “We came out in the first half ready, and then in the second half, even more than what we were doing in the first half. We just locked in on defense, and that helped us a lot.”
Trailing 39-26 with 11 minutes left, the Crusaders dug deep. After Jordan’s Eric Tiedman picked up his fourth foul and was forced to sit, Branden Carlson and the Crusaders made their move. Carlson hit two big 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, bringing Mayer Lutheran within three with just over four minutes left to play.
“I had strep last game, and was pretty awful that game,” Carlson said, who finished with a game-high 16 points. “I wanted to have a big game here tonight. I was feeling it in warmups, so I thought, why not shoot. It just fell.”
Carlson couldn’t have picked a better time to get hot, as the Crusaders were partially shorthanded in the matchup. Junior Baden Noennig came into the game battling the flu, but opted to give it a go and fight with his teammates to keep their conference title hopes alive.
“To come out and grind it out, I mean, he didn’t have to be out here tonight,” Buchanan said. “He wanted it for his brothers. He was out here for his brothers and he grinded it out. You can’t ask a player of his talent to do anything else. He grinded it out for his family.”
Despite battling the flu, Noennig made his impact felt on the game. With a steal and layup with 3:05 left to go, Mayer Lutheran was back on top after a 17-6 run.
With the Crusaders on top, a ruckus crowd only became louder as the Crusaders fed off the energy from their home fans.
“These guys have been awesome here,” Carlson said about the atmosphere and crowd. We couldn’t do it without them. They’re so awesome.”
Senior Branden Carlson hit some big-time shots down the stretch to give the Crusaders a spark in the second half.
Along with the common crowd for the Crusaders was the addition of several alumni, returning to get a look at the highly-touted Crusaders.
“Without those alumni, I’m not here,” Buchanan said. “These other players aren’t here. They’re important to building this. We want to make sure, when they come out to support us, that we show up. We play a good game. We don’t want to just come out here and lay an egg. This is a phenomenal crowd. I tell people, if you haven’t been to Mayer, come. It’s electric in this building, and I love it.”
While Carlson catching fire from deep in the second half helped the Crusaders fight back into the game, it was the play on Tjernagel inside all game long that kept the Crusaders within striking distance as battled it out with Tiedman (6-foot-6) and Andrew Niebuhr (6-foot-11) all night long.
“Oh my goodness,” Tjernagel said about battling it out with Jordan’s monsters inside. “It’s different. It’s not every day you can play against a 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-11 kid. It’s definitely good practice. It’s just good to get a feel for the competition that will be there for later on down the road.”
Tjernagel held his own and more in the paint for the Crusaders, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
“Garrett is a different Garret than he has been in the past,” Buchanan said. “That’s key for us for what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go. That’s all the seniors, but Garrett had a big-time game. We needed him to go inside tonight. We needed some easy buckets, because our 3-pointers weren’t going down tonight. He led us in that department.”
While things were never easy for the Crusaders in the win, the six seniors showed off their toughness by overcoming everything with a big win to keep pace with the Hubmen in the race for the MRC title.
“There’s so many crucial seniors,” Buchanan said. “Those guys grinded it out. They didn’t have the best of games tonight, but they did the little things. Sometimes, it’s not about the scoring. It’s just about the little intangibles that don’t show up in the stats. It’s the leadership and energy that they bring. That’s what that was about tonight. They don’t get to play Jordan again. They wanted to make it be meaningful. That’s meaningful for them, and I love those guys. It’s for them.”
“I can’t think of a better way,” Carlson said about knocking off Jordan on Senior Night. “It was awesome.”
While it was a big win for the Crusaders, they’re not satisfied yet. For a team that’s had high expectations from the beginning of the season, there’s a lot to be desired yet, and games like this only will prepare them for what’s to come.
“With teams like this, and then playing section opponents during the season, it’s good for us,” Tjernagel said. “A lot of kids haven’t been in these situations before, and for us to know what it’s like, that will have us ready for it.”
The Crusaders have five games left on the schedule before they gear up for the postseason push. At 18-3 overall, the Crusaders have faced many different experiences, and have shown they can win games in different ways.
“The joy about tonight’s game is that we’ve seen this before,” Buchanan said. “We’ve had this experience for us to get ready for March. We talk about those experiences. Those experiences are helping us get better, and understand how to win when March comes. When March comes, we’re going to be tough. If you want to grind out games, we’re going to grind it out. If you want to go up and down, we are going to go. Pick your poison on how you want to play us, because we’re ready for whatever you bring.”