ST. CLOUD — With a dominant performance from tap to horn Thursday night in the Section AAA championship game against Willmar, Delano punched the program’s third ticket to the state tournament.
The Tigers’ career scoring leader, Calvin Wishart, was on fire at the start of the game, single-handedly giving Delano an 8-0 lead in the first two minutes, and, soon, his teammates began to pitch in, making the task of catching the Tigers (18-11) impossible for the top-seeded Cardinals (26-3), who were ranked No. 9 in the state.
Delano’s reserves finished off the final 45 seconds of the 75-54 rout, and, after celebrating at center court and receiving their medals and the team trophy, helped cut down the net that felt the final 34 points of the victory.
“That meant everything,” said Wishart shortly after freeing the net free from the rim, surrounded by his teammates and Tiger fans. “I’ve been playing with some of these guys since fourth grade and we always talked about going to the state tournament. I’m just glad we get the chance senior year. We played the number-one seed, Willmar, and I’m glad we get to prove everybody wrong and go to the state tournament.”
Delano coach Terry Techam stood off to the side of the court during the post-game celebrations. He couldn’t help but crack a smile, one of relief, while watching his players cut down the net.
“We’ve been here quite a bit, but the last two years we got a bad draw and ended up in the best section in the state,” the coach said, referring to Delano’s two-season stint in Section 6 with DeLaSalle, which, after Thursday night’s 80-78 win over Orono, will make a run at a seventh consecutive state title. “This is fun. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be on this side of it.”
At 6-foot-8, senior Keegan O’Neill held the trophy high and (unintentionally) out of the reach of his teammates after receiving it from Activities Director Mike Lindquist. A good 10 minutes later, after several photo-ops, he still clutched the rare piece of hardware, the emotion of his team’s feat visible in his eyes.
“It’s everything we’ve been working for with all these guys for so long. It’s finally paid off,” he said. “But, we’re not done yet; we’ve got three more. It wasn’t our main goal just to get [to state]. We want to win the thing.”
Delano is going to state for the first time since 2013. The other appearance for the Tigers was in 1993.
Delano enters this year’s dance with an 18-11 record, a record that carries more substance than what is visible on the surface.
“Our non-conference schedule was by far the toughest non-conference schedule since I’ve been here, and we were hoping it would prepare us for this run,” said coach Techam. “We knew our record might not be as good as it had been in the past, but the goal was [to prepare] for this three-week time in the playoffs.”
The Class AAA state tournament begins Wednesday, March 21, at Williams Arena. The first-round match-ups are not known yet, as the Section 1 championship game between Austin and Northfield is Friday night.
The other section champions are Mankato East (Section 2), St. Thomas Academy (3), Columbia Heights (4), DeLaSalle (6), Hermantown (7), and Sauk Rapids-Rice (8).
Delano is familiar with two of the qualifiers from regular-season meetings. The Tigers defeated Hermantown and lost to Sauk Rapids-Rice.
Following a 46-point effort in the quarterfinal 89-68 win over Becker and a record 48 points in the 80-76 semifinal win over Monticello, Wishart finished with 32 points in title win over Willmar, which entered with only two losses. He shot 67 percent from the field (12-of-18).
Being “In the “Zone” is a real thing, according to Wishart.
“I feel like I’m in the zone every game. Every time I touch the basketball, I feel like I can score,” he said, then talking about his fast start. “The “heat-up” is what I call it. You get going on that first shot. The first one went in, and the basket looked like an ocean.”
Wishart scored 24 of his 32 points in that white-hot first half. His intention was to start fast and quickly take Willmar out of the game.
“I tried to emphasize to the guys that we could come out and kill them,” he said. “I just wanted everybody to have that killer mindset, so I came out and tried to set the tone for everybody. Not to have a cocky mindset, but to have some arrogance about you and to get them to think that we can beat these guys.”
An eight-point second half may not seem like a strong showing from Wishart, but it didn’t have to be, as his teammates picked up on the scoring. The Tigers also slowed the pace down in the second half, burning up the clock and limiting Willmar’s scoring opportunities.
“Calvin started out incredibly in the first half,” said O’Neill. “We said at halftime, though, that you don’t get anything for just playing 18 minutes and that that half didn’t mean a thing if we didn’t finish. We kept it going the whole way, and got the win.”
The Tigers were able to keep it going in the second half because of the play of O’Neill, who was, quite simply, awesome.
O’Neill scored 21 points for the game in an 8-for-11 night from the field (73 percent). He was his usual self in the paint, and ran the floor as well as he has all season, slicing through the lane on fast breaks for easy transition buckets.
“He needed that after the Monticello game,” O’Neill’s mother, Cristi, said during the post-game celebration. O’Neill scored 9 points in the semifinal game against the Magic.
Following a Willmar timeout less than three minutes into the game, with Delano leading 10-0, the double teams on Wishart began. That’s when O’Neill went to work. His 10-point first half helped the Tigers carry a 17-point lead (41-24) into halftime. O’Neill poured in 11 more points in the second half before exiting the game in the final minute.
“I feel like I stepped up how I needed to,” he said. “Everybody stepped up, and we played a great game as a team.”
Junior guard Derek Techam didn’t get a lot of shots off, but he was on points when he did. His 12 points came on four 3-pointers in six attempts. He scored nine points in the second half.
“Calvin is our main guy, that’s pretty obvious, but everybody has their own role and everybody is pretty confident,” said coach Techam. “When they started double-teaming Calvin, those other guys were confident in their abilities.”
Also for Delano, freshman Trey Longstreet scored eight points on a pair of rain-drop runners and a layup, and Max Otto score two points from the inside.
Wishart, O’Neill and Otto all finished with six rebounds.
What Delano did at the offensive end of the court was strong, but the Tigers’ ability to smother the Cardinal scorers was equally impressive.
“That might have been one of the best defensive games we have played in a long time,” said coach Techam.
The Tigers held the Cardinals to the 24 points in the first half, and to 30 points in the second.
Wishart is known for his scoring prowess, but he can defend, as well, and showed that Thursday night when he held Willmar’s Noah Slagter to just 16 points. Slagter averaged more than 22 points per game this season.
Drey Dirksen scored 14 points for Willmar. No other Cardinal scored more than eight points.