Sometimes you just need a superstar.
Minnesota Crookston, like all teams, would love to play balanced and free on offense. But when that doesn’t go as planned, it has something that those other teams don’t: Harrison Cleary.
Cleary scored 29 points, including a torrid stretch in the first half, while Malcolm Cohen got going late for 23, as the Golden Eagles (3-2, 1-0 NSIC) won their conference and home opener, 88-72, over Bemidji State (2-1, 0-1) on Thursday night at Lysaker Gymnasium.
“He's a special player,” said UMC coach Dan Weisse. “We needed him early in particular to get going because he was our only offense for a while there.”
The Golden Eagles overcame a sluggish first few minutes featuring defensive lapses and missed shots, many of which were from Cleary himself.
But when the NSIC Player to Watch got going, he got going.
Down 10-4 four minutes in, Cleary confidently strode close to the 3-point line, going in-and-out, between the legs and back to his right. Fade, flick, follow-through. Swish.
He scored 11 more points over the next five minutes, most coming the same way as the first three. Cleary hit contested stepbacks, dribbled the air out of the ball, broke ankles, drove to the rim and occasionally set up teammates.
Of Cleary’s 15 first-half shots, almost all were tightly-guarded. The most open he got was coming left across a Javier Nicolau pick and finding himself all alone at the top of the key. That one caught nothing but net, with seven minutes before halftime, to give him 17.
“When you start to hit maybe two or three tough shots then you start to get a little bit hot and know that you can maybe take a couple deep ones,” Cleary said. “ … Over the last four years now that’s where I made a living, stepbacks and tough shots.”
And by the time Cleary had put UMC in a comfortable position, having scored 22 first-half points to propel his team to a 42-33 lead, the rest of the team was ready to get going as well.
The Golden Eagles desperately needed more from Cohen after the redshirt senior shot just 26 percent through the first four games. They got that Thursday.
It was clear Thursday would be different for Cohen the second he got his feet set from the left wing and laced a triple six minutes in, and his confidence only grew. He drilled a 3-pointer from three steps beyond the line, his fourth, for a 14-point lead lead halfway through the second half, grimacing and pumping his fist across his body.
“He's been shooting all season so far and they just weren't dropping,” Cleary said. “But tonight we just kept telling him to do what he's been doing.”
But even as Cleary was held mostly silent in the second half, taking just five shots, that silence was deafening: an indication that the Beavers were prepared to stop one man at all costs.
That cost them as the second half wore on. Bemidji State put a man in Cleary’s jersey and doubled him as soon as he crossed halfcourt, trapping every ball screen.
That left open space all over the court, which Cohen and Brian Sitzmann (12 points) took full advantage of, as did the Golden Eagles’ bigs, Javier Nicolau and Chase Johnson, who combined for 13 points and nine boards.
On defense, UMC did what Bemidji State couldn’t: stop the opposing superstar. Nick Wagner, coming into Thursday averaging 31 points and seven treys per game, was held to 2-of-14 shooting and eight points by a combination of Sitzmann, Ben Juhl and whoever else was willing to get their hands dirty.
“Defense was everything,” Cohen said. “Real shoutout to Ben and Brian, that was their job, they really held it down.”
And as Cleary’s individual brilliance set the foundation into a comprehensive team win, one in which the Golden Eagles turned it over just nine times and nailed 15 of 34 treys, there was nothing left but the fight song and the handshake line.
“I didn't feel we played our best basketball a weekend ago,” Weisse said. “However, with that said, the schedule we put together this year, it was great to see how we improved for this big first conference game.”
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