by Jared Hines
Contributing Sports Writer
With 6:57 left to play in the Section 8-4A section quarterfinal game between Rogers and Brainerd, Royals junior Jordan Belka hit a three-point shot to give his team a 59-57 lead. On the next play down the floor, teammate Matt Carik caught the Warriors off guard and threw an inbounds pass to Tanner Palm, who was able to easily lay it in and give the Royals a four-point lead.
The Warriors never led again.
“Give credit to Brainerd,” Belka said after the game. “They gave us all they could but we stayed true to ourselves and played together for a hard fought win.”
Rogers defeated the Warriors 79-67 on Tuesday night, advancing to the Section 8AAAA semifinals and extending their season for at least one more game. The Royals played their last home game of the season, leaving their fans in awe as the team went 9-2 as the home team. Per usual, the Royals came out of the locker room for the second half, ready to build off their small first half lead.
“We have a team that just loves to play and compete,” Belka said. “Our mentality starting the second half is to build on the success of the first half and try to put them away early.”
With 5:35 left to play in the game, Brainerd’s Michael Russell hit a three-point shot — giving him 27 points on the night — to put his team back within one. For a split second, it looked like the game would go down to the final stretch, but Belka and Co. weren’t about to let that happen in their home gym.
In the next handful of Royals’ possessions, Belka was fouled and hit two free throws to make it 63-60. On the next possession, Carik made a tough layup under pressure, and the next time down the court Palm hit Collin Franz for Palm’s seventh assist of the night. Carik drove to the lane on his next opportunity and was fouled, making the shot, and the free throw, in the process. Finally, Franz got his own offensive rebound and powered his way to the basket to complete the Royals 9-0 run that kept the game out of reach. After Russell’s three-point shot, the Royals outscored the Warriors 18-7.
“We have a very unselfish team,” Belka said after his 28-point performance Tuesday evening. “Teams are keying on Matt and that has created opportunities for myself. I just take what the defense gives and have been lucky enough to hit some shots. The credit really belongs to the team as we just play together and it doesn’t matter who scores the points.”
The scoring was spread out among the Royals with Carik adding 19 points and Franz another 14 in the victory. Spilles netted 10, Palm scored seven, and Brevan Watson added three more. The Royals shot 54 percent from the field, including 68 percent from inside the three-point line.
The Royals next game is March 11 at St. Cloud State University where the Royals will look to avenge one of their few losses, against St. Cloud Tech. Tech defeated Buffalo in overtime on Tuesday night.
“Last time we played Tech, it was a hard fought game and we are expecting the same on Saturday,” Belka said.
Tech defeated Rogers 55-54 in a heartbreaker on Jan. 3 when the Tigers hit a last-second basket to take the game from the Royals. The team felt the agony of defeat early in 2017 and since then the members of the team haven’t looked back. The Royals are 16-1 since that loss.
“They are very good defensively and have some great athletes,” Belka said about the upcoming opponent. “We will have to be good defensively and knock down some shots early.”
Saturday’s game takes place at SCSU at 3:30 p.m. following the conclusion of the other semifinal matchup between Maple Grove and Elk River. The winners of both games play in the Section 8AAAA final March 16th at Monticello High School. The Tigers are 22-5 on the season, while the Royals are 23-4.
“Tech is very good but if we defend and let our defense create out offense, we should hopefully put ourselves in a position to come out on top,” Belka said. “It should be a great game.”