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Dakota Valley fends off Winner in Class A state tourney

“I think that second half showed we can play with anybody in this tournament,” said Brady Fritz. “Coming into the tournament, we felt like people thought, ‘Oh, Winner’s going to come in here and they’re not going to be able to compete with teams like Dakota Valley.’ But I think after that, we proved ourselves.”

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Winner's Blake Volmer (24) dives for a loose ball along with Dakota Valley's Alex Zephier (5) during a game in the first round of the Class A state tournament on Thursday, March 18 at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)

SIOUX FALLS -- Winner nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages.

A 20-point deficit turned into a one-possession game in the final minute, but a turnover with 17 seconds remaining sealed a 65-58 win for Dakota Valley on Thursday at the Sanford Premier Center in the Class A state tournament.

“I think that second half showed we can play with anybody in this tournament,” said Brady Fritz, who spearheaded Winner’s comeback. “Coming into the tournament, we felt like people thought, ‘Oh, Winner’s going to come in here and they’re not going to be able to compete with teams like Dakota Valley.’ But I think after that, we proved ourselves.”

Dakota Valley led 38-20 with 7:12 left in the third quarter, controlling the up-tempo pace and forcing Winner (20-3) into tough shots. But led by Fritz, the Warriors had a chance to force overtime in the final minute.

Fritz scored 23 of his team-high 28 points in the second half, including 16 in the third quarter that helped Winner cut the deficit to 10 points. He hit tough layups in traffic, sank 3-pointers while being fouled and led a once-struggling offense to a one-point deficit when Blake Volmer, who scored 12 points, sank a 3 to make it a 59-58 game.

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“At halftime, I knew I had to go out there and let it go,” Fritz said. “I trusted my work that I put in. I knew shots would start falling once that first one went in. It felt like I got into more of a rhythm.”

After a Paul Bruns putback, Winner had the final shot to extend the contest. But the Panthers (22-2) read the play, with Randy Rosenquist throwing the ball out-of-bounds off a Winner player to force a turnover and allow Isaac Bruns to seal the game at the free-throw line and cap a 31-point performance.

“We were having Brady come off of a triple screen,” Winner coach Brett Gardner said. “... We were going to slip somebody, but unfortunately, they jumped that, too. Blake had to hang onto the ball a little longer, threw it over to the corner and next you know, we’re trapped.”

It proved to be an insurmountable lead, one Dakota Valley grew with a 29-4 run in the first half, including 25 straight points to erase Winner’s early 14-7 lead.

Winner shot 29.6 percent in the first half, but led by Paul Bruns’ 22-point, 21-rebound double-double, Dakota Valley dominated the glass. It grabbed nearly every rebound and looked for an outlet pass near mid-court, which often led to a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 advantage in transition. The Panthers shot 48.2 percent from the field in the win and held a 39-29 advantage on the glass.

“We practiced their transition basketball, but it’s hard to emulate the speed,” Gardner said. “... Every one of those guys are fast. We practiced scoring and getting back on defense, but they’re just faster than us.”

Winner started to send three players back on defense in the second half, which forced more 3-on-3 transition chances to make Dakota Valley execute its half-court offense more frequently. Led by Ethan Bartels’ team-high seven rebounds, the Warriors also rebounded better and grabbed six offensive boards.

“(We were) getting offensive rebounds and not letting them grab it on defense and chuck it down the court,” said Fritz, who shot 10-for-28 from the field and 6-for-16 from deep. “I think it was a mix of that. We got back better, but I think it was more of the offensive rebounding.”

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Dakota Valley plays the winner of Chamberlain vs. Sioux Valley at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. Winner takes on the loser at 2:30 p.m. on Friday in the consolation bracket.

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