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HAGEN: Miller Classic important part of DeLaSalle's state title run

Dave Thorson paused, then clarified his words.

The head boys' basketball coach at DeLaSalle High School wanted to make sure he got his point across about how valuable playing at the annual Mike Miller Classic has become for his team's success.

"It's something that's sort of become important ... well, not sort of," said Thorson, who's in his 19th year at the school. "It has become important to us because of several reasons."

Saturday at Target Center, just a few months after playing a pair of games at the Third Annual Mike Miller Classic, Thorson led his team to its second consecutive Minnesota Class 3A state basketball championship.

Thorson said the Miller Classic is something his team looks forward to each season and has already committed to attend again later this year in December, which would be its fourth year of coming to Mitchell.

In each year of the classic's existence, DeLaSalle has been one of the teams that's been invited to play on the Corn Palace's floor. In that span, the Islanders have won five of their six games, competing against five South Dakota squads and one out-of-state team.

Playing a tough regular-season schedule is one of the first things Thorson talked about when asked if playing in the Miller Classic had any connection to winning the state title over the weekend.

This year at the classic, DeLaSalle defeated Our Savior New American, a then-nationally ranked team from New York, and knocked off White River, which went on to win South Dakota's Class B state championship. White River's lone loss this year came against DeLaSalle.

The Islanders played teams from six states en route to their 30-1 season. Along with the teams from South Dakota and New York, they also played opponents from Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota this year.

In past years at the Miller Classic, DeLaSalle has also played Red Cloud, Mitchell, Custer and Sioux Falls Lincoln. The Islanders' loss came in 2011, when Sioux Falls Lincoln won 62-60.

"There's no question that in terms of scheduling, there's a formula to our success," said Thorson, whose team also went back-to-back in 1998 and 1999 and won another title in 2006. "The Mike Miller Classic has given us the opportunity to put a piece of that formula in place to help win us a state championship."

Along with difficult scheduling, Thorson talked about the different types of schemes and tempos that are played at the Miller Classic, which helped prepare his team for a low-scoring championship game.

The Islanders were held to a season-low 50 points Saturday in the title game, but showed another side of their game with a strong defensive effort, holding their opponent -- which had a Division I recruit headed to Davidson -- to only 33 points.

"If you're a team that's one dimensional, you have an Achilles' (heel)," Thorson said. "The Our Savior team had two legitimate athletic post players and had some great guys on the perimeter. So that was a great challenge for us.

"Then we played White River, a team that wants to play in transition. Frankly, they had no post players. They were trying to spread it out against us. That was totally different than the night before. I really believe that facing those different challenges make you better as a team."

Thorson said he's also enjoyed playing at the Corn Palace and the Miller Classic because it provides a state tournament-like atmosphere for his teams. The coach said his team played in front of about 14,000 to 15,000 people in Saturday's championship game at Target Center, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was the largest crowd any of his teams have played in front of for the past 10 years, he said.

For the most part, DeLaSalle has played in front of large crowds when it has come to Mitchell, Thorson said. Perhaps the biggest crowd came in DeLaSalle's first competition at the Miller Classic in 2010, a game the Islanders beat the Kernels 62-56 in front of at least 2,000 people.

"There's no way you can simulate that sort of environment without playing in it," he said.

Thorson said there's indeed a direct correlation between playing at the Miller Classic and his team claiming state championships each of the past two years. He said he still keeps in contact with coaches he's met and even noticed that White River won the state title two weekends ago.

So expect DeLaSalle to continue to be a mainstay at the Miller Classic. The team is benefitting from attending in more ways than one. And, it's paying off in state titles.

"It's awesome that we're considered in the first group of schools that (tournament organizers) want to call," Thorson said. "We've really enjoyed doing it, and the people of Mitchell have been so hospitable to us. We almost feel we have some fans because people have been so good to us."