by Bruce Strand
Elk River Star News
Still smarting from an embarrassing, wipeout loss two nights earlier, the Elk River River Elks regrouped Saturday and fought off Rogers Royals 51-47 in the annual River Battle between the District 728 siblings.
Clay Elrod scored 20 points for the Elks (7-2) while Cole Murray had 19 and Gunnar Bloom 13 for the Royals (3-4) in a game at Rogers ultimately settled by two defensive stops by the Elks in the final minute.
“It was a good battle like it always is, a hard-fought, defensive game, with both teams struggling a little to score,” said Elk coach Randy Klasen.
The Elks were shattered by No. 5 ranked Champlin Park 95-39 on Thursday evening in Champlin. There was a lot of buzz around town about how a 6-1 team could lose so badly, even to a powerful opponent. Klasen said there was no injuries, no foul trouble. It was just a complete butt-kicking.
“Champlin Park played a great game. They made every shot,” said Klasen. “We tried different things and could not stop them. We were down by 31 at the half. Once we got down, it just kind of snowballed. They are very good. All five starters will end up being college players.”
Junior guard Mitchell Weege, who sank three of four free shots for the final points against Rogers, winced at the mention of the Champlin game.
“We just had to put it behind us,” said Weege. “They are a very good team, one of the top in the state, but we made them look a little better than they were … It was extremely embarrassing, and I’m going to do everything I can to never let that happen again.”
The Elks had a shaky start against Rogers, as the Royals led by as much as eight in the first half, but Elrod pulled them back within 29-27 at the break. The 6-foot-6 forward scored 18 of his 20 before halftime, including three of his rain-making three-point shots, plus a 3-for-3 at the line when he was fouled on another attempt.
In the game, Devell Miller added 10 points, Matt Keller nine and Weege eight for the Elks. Keller, sophomore guard, was the main spark in the second half, including a 3-pointer that gave the Elks their first lead and a pair of slashing layups down the stretch.
The Elks led 48-44 before Rogers guard Sawyer Thompson swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key, making it 48-47. Rogers had two chances to take the lead but didn’t get a shot off either time.
Weege picked up a loose ball in the lane, got fouled and made two free shots.
Rogers, in the final 20 seconds, drew up a play to get the ball to the right side off a screen by Murray to get Bloom open.
“But we never got the ball swung over to Gunner, and we turned the ball over,” said coach Joe Belka.
Said Weege: “We were talking on defense and we knew what they were going to try to do, which shooters they were going to try get open, and we just put our foot down and stopped them.”
Belka said he could not fault his team’s defensive effort.
“We defended really well. Elrod had 18 in the first half, but finished with 20. In the first half, some of the shots he hit were really tough shots, where he was fading away and had a hand in his face, and he still knocked those down. So we can live with that. And Weege, he did not get a lot of points either.”
Added Klasen: “We had way too many turnovers in the first half. Give Rogers credit, they play hard, and made us do things we are not comfortable doing.”
Murray, Rogers’ 6-9 junior center, played what Belka felt it was his best game of the year, combining his scoring, defense, rebounding and ball screening. Bloom, junior guard, sank there 3-pointers among his 13 points. Joey Simpson made six steals and scored seven points.
Rogers was playing a back-to-back, having lost a similar grinder at Monticello 58-55 the night before.
“It would have been nice to have both of them. Or, one of them,” signed Belka. “They were both really close. At Monticello, we led the better part of the game but could not put them away, and let them hang around and get their crowd into the game. But I was proud today that our kids came off that tough loss last night and were ready to go again.”
The Royals probably lost the game at the free throw line, making just six of 17 attempts. The Elks were 9-for-12. The Elks made six 3-pointers and Rogers five.
Elk River now leads the River Battle boys series 9-2.
Rogers will play in the Tartan tournament starting Friday, Dec. 27, against Forest Lake. Elk River does not have a holiday tournament but will have one game in the break, hosting Brainerd on Saturday, Dec. 28.
In earlier action, Tyler Frie sank a 3-point shot for the final margin as the Monticello Magic ground out a 58-55 win over the Rogers Royals on Friday evening, Dec. 20.
Frie netted 11 points and Matt Grathwohl and James Schyma 10 each for the Magic (1-1 conference, 5-4 overall).
Monticello had a slight 34-32 rebound edge but that included 10 offensive rebounds leading to some key second-chance baskets. They also had a 13-20 edge in turnovers.
Gunnar Bloom notched 17 points for the Royals while nobody else had more than eight.
It was the conference opener for Rogers (3-3 overall), who will host Elk River at 3 p.m. Saturday in the 10th annual River Battle.