CEDAR RAPIDS — The message to his team was simple and succinct.
“Dream big,” Alburnett boys’ basketball coach Jeff Christopherson said. “We want to keep practicing. We haven’t practiced much the last three weeks because of the weather, but we want to keep practicing.”
Dream big and keep practicing.
It doesn’t get much bigger than the state tournament, and that’s where the Pirates will go if they beat WACO in a Class 1A substate final Saturday night at Iowa City Liberty. Tipoff is 7.
Alburnett (17-5) has never qualified for state, its last substate finals appearance coming in 2004. That it’s even in this position is surprising in that the Pirates had to rally from 18 points down early in the second half to beat Calamus-Wheatland, 71-64, in overtime in Thursday night’s district final.
Sophomore guard Hunter Caves was absolutely “The Man” in the improbable comeback, scoring 30 of his game-high 31 points in the second half. That included 26 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half,” Christopherson said. “Cal-Wheat made a ton of 3s, and we told the guys they weren’t going to keep shooting like that. We had to rebound and play defense.”
Alburnett has won 13 of its last 15 games and is 10-2 since senior center Izic Mackey rejoined the team after the holiday break. He was out with a knee injury.
The 6-foot-5 Mackey leads the Pirates in scoring (17.9 points per game) and shoots 68 percent from the field. Five guys average 8.2 points, including sophomores Caves and fellow guard Shane Neighbor.
“I think we’re pretty hard to guard,” Christopherson said.
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There are eight substate finals each in Class 1A and 2A Saturday night. Class 3A substate finals are Monday and 4A finals Tuesday.
The state tournament is March 4-8 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Saturday's Class 1A substate finals
Alburnett (17-5) vs. WACO (17-4)
7 p.m., Iowa City Liberty
This is the first substate final since 2004 for Alburnett, which seeks its first state tournament trip. WACO has qualified for state twice, the last time in 2006 (a fourth-place finish in 1A). Alburnett rallied from 18 points down early in the second half to beat Calamus-Wheatland in overtime in the substate semifinals. Sophomore guard Hunter Caves had 31 points, 30 in the second half, 26 in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Pirates are 10-2 since senior center Izic Mackey returned from a knee injury halfway through the season. He averages 18 points a game. WACO ousted seventh-ranked New London in its substate semi, 41-37. Junior center Nik Coble averages a double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds.
No. 5 Montezuma (20-1) vs. Grundy Center (12-10)
7 p.m., Marshalltown
It has been 28 years since Montezuma made it to state. The Braves won the 1A title that year (1990). Montezuma qualified before that in 1971, also winning it all. Grundy Center has been a state qualifier eight times, the last in 2003. Montezuma won its first 17 games, losing its regular-season finale to Class 2A No. 1 North Linn, 87-40, in a game scheduled at the last minute because of previous cancellations by both teams. The Braves are led in scoring by sophomore guard Trey Shearer (23 ppg). Grundy has won five in a row, including an impressive 70-68 win over a Dunkerton team also in a 1A semifinal. The Spartans have no player who averages double figures in scoring.
Saturday's Class 2A substate finals
No. 1 North Linn (22-0) vs. Cascade (15-6)
7 p.m., Manchester
North Linn seeks its third state tournament appearance in a row. The Lynx finished third in Class 1A in 2017 and second last year. They average a state-best 91 points per game, their closest game coming in the district finals, a 55-43 win over Dyersville Beckman. Point guard Jake Hilmer had 26 points in that game and holds state career records for assists and steals. He is the only player in state history to have over 2,000 career points and over 1,000 career assists. Cascade was last year’s 2A state champion. The Cougars have won nine of their last 10 games. Forward Haris Hoffman averages a team-best 14.9 points per game. He was a first-team 2A all-stater last season.
No. 7 Iowa City Regina (19-2) vs. No. 6 Camanche (20-3)
7 p.m., Muscatine
Regina seeks its 11th state tournament appearance, its 16th if you count the trips its predecessor Iowa City St. Mary’s made. Regina finished second in 2A in 2015. Camanche has made it to Des Moines three previous times, including a fourth-place finish in 2017. The Indians beat Regina that year in the substate finals. Regina has won 14 games in a row. Its losses were to Cascade and Camanche (60-53 in early December at Camanche). Junior guard Masen Miller was a unanimous pick for the River Valley Conference Elite Team. He averages 20.2 points per game and shoots 42.7 percent from 3-point range. Camanche’s losses have been to Cascade, 3A Mount Pleasant and 4A Pleasant Valley (by one). Junior guard Cameron Soenksen averages a team-high 20.2 points per game and is a three-year starter.
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