St. Thomas Academy is headed to the state tournament after fending off No. 3 seed Richfield, 62-59, in the Class 3A, Section 3 final.
As in any close game, free throws were crucial down the stretch. In this game, however, it was Richfield's inability to make free throws that spoiled its night. The Spartans were 5-for-21 from the charity stripe while the Cadets made 11-of-15.
"We struggled off and on with free throws throughout the year, so if we shot close to seventy five percent I'm happy," Cadets coach Jason Birr said.
Jack Thompson nailed four big ones down the stretch with a roaring Richfield crowd behind him.
Richfield was down one point with less than a minute left when it started fouling to stop the clock, which sent Thompson to the line twice. Thompson sealed the game with four clutch foul shots and finished with 15 points.
"We couldn't let the crowd get to us," Thompson said. "They were pretty loud the whole game but I was able to zone them out at the end there."
After getting into foul trouble early, Thompson scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half and made the only three-pointer he attempted.
While eight players made the scoring sheet for St. Thomas Academy, including Sam Vascellaro who had a team-high 16 points, only five players scored for Richfield. Antonio Maddox led the Spartans with 17 points, Emmanuel Blackshear had 15 and Devin Wade-Henderson added 14.
St. Thomas Academy, ranked No. 8 in Class 3A by Minnesota Basketball News, built and maintained a lead throughout the first half after Richfield missed its first eight free throws. Both teams looked for scoring down low and spent little time outside of the three-point line.
At halftime, the Cadets (23-6, 12-4) carried a 14 point lead, the largest of the night, into the locker room after holding Richfield's leading scorer, Wade-Henderson, to four points. However, Wade-Henderson caught fire early in the second half and ignited a Spartans to come within one point of the top-seeded Cadets.
The Spartans (10-17, 3-11) applied pressure with a full-court press and tenacious, physical defense, but the Cadets never gave up the lead.
"I had to tell the players to keep their nerves and composure," Birr said. "There was a great atmosphere between their students and our students and the way they play sped us up and bothered us a little bit."
Birr reminded his players to play their own game, to get the shots they wanted and finish plays. Defensively, the Cadets focused on slowing down Wade-Henderson, Maddox and Blackshear and on offense they forced the Spartans guard every player on the court.
Between a few costly turnovers, the Cadets had long possessions that led to quality shots and trips to the free throw line, where they ultimately won the game.
"(Thompson's free throws) extended the lead to the point where they had to make three's, not two's," Birr said. "We're happy to be headed to state, but I'm going to look for places where we can get better and focus on those."