by Jared Hines
Contributing Sports Writer
Members of the Rogers boys basketball team knew they were going to have to play one of their best games of the season coming into the 8-4A section final game against Maple Grove on March 16 at Monticello High School.
The Royals, arguably coming off their best game of the season in their semifinal win over St. Cloud Tech, also knew they would have to shut down two players to be successful. One of them was Tywhon Pickford, a Division I prospect who hasn’t made his college decision yet. The other was future Wisconsin Badger Brad Davison.
“They are the two-headed monster,” Royals head coach Joe Belka said about Pickford and Davison. “We knew we were going to have to stop them, but overall I thought we did a really nice job.”
The Royals lost 69-64 to the Crimson on Thursday night, falling one game short of the state tournament in a season that was full of positives for the team. They came into the game 24-4, winning all 13 games in the Mississippi 8 conference for their second straight conference title. Their four regular season losses came at the hands of a three-point loss to Forest Lake in the Tartan Tournament, a buzzer beater loss to St. Cloud Tech, a four-point loss to a top-5 Wayzata team and a loss to the Crimson in the third game of the season. Back on Dec. 9, Davison and Co. cruised to a 68-41 win over the Royals. This time around, it wouldn’t be so easy.
“They executed the game plan and worked extremely hard,” Belka said after the game. “We beat them on the boards. We just had too many turnovers at some bad times. We had some shots that didn’t drop but honestly we couldn’t have asked more from the kids.”
Three of the turnovers the Royals had in the first half came early in the game as they tried to settle their nerves in the packed Monticello High School fieldhouse that was rocking with Crimson students who were decked out in denim and the Royals fan base who went with a white-out theme. Crimson’s Jack Hutchison hit two early 3-point shots and within the first few minutes, the Crimson were up 13-2. The Royals followed the Crimson run up with an 8-2 run of their own, but turnovers kept adding up, not allowing the Royals to dig into the Maple Grove lead the way they wanted to. Finally, with seven minutes remaining in the first half, things started to click for Rogers.
“They played as hard as any group of kids I have ever seen,” Belka said. “They gave us an opportunity to win.”
Nick Camarote came into the game with about seven minutes left to relieve guard Tanner Palm, who came down hard on his ankle. Camarote scored early, but his difference was really made on the defensive end of the court where he helped force a couple turnovers in a scoring run that got the Royals back within one at halftime. Camarote hit a floater at the buzzer that would have gave the Royals a one-point lead, but it came out of his hand just a split second too late and the refs waved it off. Five players had between 5-7 points for the Royals at halftime, keeping the Crimson honest and not allowing them to double team or play off any one individual.
“Kids laugh about it but I like to call Nick our little microwave,” Belka said about Camarote, who usually is one the first player off the bench. “He heats up in a hurry and when I say heats up I don’t just mean offensively but defensively as well. When he comes into the game he is ready to play right away. He played really really well tonight but it wasn’t surprising. Nick is one of the reasons we had the type of season we had and he is the reason we had the type of game that we had.”
As the second half started, the Royals continued to have to rely on their bench for production as Palm continued to be out with his ankle injury and Collin Franz picked up two early second half fouls to give him three total for the game. Camarote continued having one of his best performances of the season, hitting a three-point shot with 11:43 remaining in the game to put the Royals up 45-42. He raised his arms up towards the student section, telling them to get loud and they responded, continuing to help sway the momentum in the Royals favor.
With both teams in the bonus early in the second half, the Royals had to rely on their performance at the free throw line, a stat the whole team would tell you hasn’t been one of their strongest points this season. Senior guard Matt Carik took on the challenge, hitting six in a row, keeping the Royals lead at three points with 4:15 to play in the game.
Crimson’s Davison came out of the timeout and did what he has done in so many games this year. As the gym continued getting louder, Davison continued to play better, scoring four straight points to put Maple Grove back up by one point with 3:01 remaining. The lead extended to three but then back to one as Collin Franz went up with his dominant left hand and lost control of the ball. With no time to spare, he found the ball with his right hand and tipped it lightly into the basket. With less than a minute left in the game, the Royals still had a chance to upset to No. 2 team in the state if the Crimson missed their foul shots. Unfortunately for the Royals, that didn’t happen as Maple Grove dribbled the time out on its way to the team’s second straight section title.
Many people didn’t give the Royals a chance after losing seniors Will Alexander, Steffan Musoke, Drew Sagehorn and Allen Wilson last year. The doubters’ early question marks on the 2016-17 team were met with a team that had something to prove, starting the season with convincing wins over Anoka and Andover — a team playing in next week’s state tournament.
After the Royals loss to the Crimson in the third game of the season, Rogers rallied off four straight wins, including one against Elk River in the annual River Battle. Two of the next three games were losses before the team went 12-0 over the next month and a half and 15-1 overall to close out the season. The lone loss was a four-point loss to the Trojans, another team represented in next weekend’s state tournament.
“Every third, fourth, fifth grade player on up who came to a game saw the way we defended,” Belka said. “They saw the way we executed, they saw the way we shared the basketball and that’s the way we want to play.”
The Royals lose six seniors off the 2016-17 team, relying on a huge junior class to continue the winning tradition that Belka has instilled in the Royals program over the last handful of years. The seniors for Royals are Matt Carik, Mitch Spilles, Tanner Palm, Brevan Watson, Nick Camarote, and Collin Franz. All six players are multi-sport athletes at Rogers High School.
Coach Belka couldn’t say enough good things about his seniors this year, pointing to the leadership throughout the entire season that helped lead the Royals to one of the best seasons in program history.
“I don’t know if I can say enough positive things about the senior class. The message I had to the players last season when our season came to an end is the best compliment that we can pay to the departing seniors and the best way we can say thank you is to pick up where they left off,” Belka said. “This group of seniors did exactly what we asked them to do. They played hungry, they played together, they played unselfish, they played for each other, and like I told the kids in the locker room, the leadership that they showed throughout the course of the season… I mean they showed the community of Rogers, how to play Rogers basketball.”