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Rickert's 37, poise of supporting cast, put East in 4A state finals

SAINT PAUL-- The secret is out. Rick Rickert is not only focused on basketball every waking hour, but apparently he's also consumed by basketball even when he's sleeping. Regardless of whether it was osmosis, superstition or gimmick, credit Dulut...

SAINT PAUL-- The secret is out. Rick Rickert is not only focused on basketball every waking hour, but apparently he's also consumed by basketball even when he's sleeping. Regardless of whether it was osmosis, superstition or gimmick, credit Duluth East's 58-56 victory over defending Class AAAA state champion Tartan to Rickert, who scorched the Xcel Energy Center nets for 37 points Thursday to lead the Greyhounds into the state basketball tournament final.
The Greyhounds (24-5) overcame some effective full-court pressure to subdue Tartan (26-3), and move into Saturday night's 8:30 p.m. championship game against Osseo (28-1), which presents the opposite challenge -- a high-tempo, run-and-gun outfit that scored 49 second-half points to beat Cretin-Derham Hall 88-82 in the other semifinal.
Tartan couldn't find any way to stop Rickert, and Osseo faces the same problem, even if the Orioles know about Rickert's secret. On the eve of the Tartan semifinal, coach Bob Kunze had no choice but to yield to his 6-foot-10 star senior center's desire. "We had to get a basketball out of the bus because Rick wanted to sleep with it," said Kunze.
Rickert was a bit sheepish about the disclosure. He wanted to have the ball in his hotel room, to hold, squeeze, flip, fondle and just have within the grasp of his huge hands. And since East's state championship fortunes also are in those hands, Kunze fetched the ball the Greyhounds used in their quarterfinal victory against Irondale.
"Yes, I did sleep with it," Rickert said. "I've slept with a ball before for quite a while, actually."
If that's the secret to Rickert's success, the Greyhounds had better guard his door to make sure nobody wearing Osseo black and orange kidnaps Rickert's "main squeeze."
Tartan star Erik Crawford scored 20 points, but also was run ragged, as he was assigned to Rickert man-to-man, with the rest of the Titan squad collapsing to help whenever Rickert got the ball. Despite the constant attention, Rickert scored East's first 11 points in the first quarter, the first five in both the second and third quarters, and after Ben Grams opened the fourth quarter with a layup, Rickert scored his team's next 13 points.
It took more than that to put away the Titans, but there is no question: Rick Rickert is the Duluth East basketball team. There are those who think Rickert gets too much publicity, and too much of the spotlight, but it seems his teammates don't want it any other way.
Ask guard Ryan Crain or forward Greg Anderson, who had pivotal roles in the victory. Anderson hit a couple of vital three-point shots to boost the 'Hounds to leads that reached 21-11 and 24-13 in the second quarter, and wound up with 14 points in a vital supporting role. When Tartan switched to a full-court press to close the gap to 28-26 by halftime, Crain made five of the 'Hounds repeated turnovers, but he came back to get the ball up the floor in the second half. And when Tartan threatened to overtake the Greyhounds in the final minute, closing to 54-51, Crain and Anderson each hit two pressure free throws for East's final four points to secure the victory.
"I've dreamt about the chance to play at state many times, but I really don't like doing interviews; I don't do them well, and Rick handles them so well," said Anderson, a 6-foot-6 junior. "I really wasn't nervous once we got started on the floor, though. I had to hit those threes, because Rick passed me the ball, and I wanted to get him assists. He likes assists. When we're watching tape, if I miss a shot that costs him an assist, I'll hear about it.
"When their defense started doubling him, when I hit those threes, they couldn't double him as much."
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Crain, a 5-9 junior guard, persevered to counter Tartan's press. "It didn't look pretty, but we got through it," he said. "Then they hit some threes. They just started jacking 'em up, and they kept making 'em."
Crawford hit three threes among his 20, and Gameli Ahelegbe got 15 and Chris Fitch 12, as the Titans caught up at 36-36 and 38-all, and stayed within range at 42-41 and 45-44 in the fourth quarter. Rickert, who was 10-for-16 from the floor, missed the first free throw he tried but wound up 15-for-17 from the line to rebuild the lead to 52-49. It was then that Crain was fouled, and he missed both shots -- his first two free throws in the game -- with 2 minutes left.
"After I missed those first two, I got down on myself," said Crain. "But I thought about Rick's dad, who always said worry about the stroke, not about whether it goes in."
Rickert came back with two free throws, and it was 54-51 when Crawford fouled Crain with 36.5 seconds left. "I told Ryan, 'You missed those first two free throws, but it's done. Make the next two and I won't say anything,'" said Rickert.
Crain calmly drilled both free throws, boosting the lead to 56-51. Crawford, however, came right back and hit a 3-pointer to make it 56-54 with 30 seconds to go. The Titans fouled Anderson, who walked to the line with 19.6 seconds to go. He also swished both shots, and East led 58-54. After Tartan missed a couple of shots, Chris Fitch scored on a follow-up to cut it to 58-56, but only two seconds remained. A high, lob pass-in was caught by Rickert near the sideline, and it was over.
"It was a great game, back and forth, and Erik Crawford played great defense," said Rickert. "I did what I could."
Crawford, reclining in the training room after his teammates had dressed and left, acknowledged congratulations for trying to cope with Rickert. "I'm 6-4, and he's 6 inches taller than I am," said Crawford. "And that's 6 inches plus his arms. He's got nice hands for a big guy. We scored some threes, but that match-up zone was tough. We'd never faced anything like that before."
Kunze praised his whole team. "We lost our composure a little in the second quarter," he said. "But Ryan Crain came through again and got the ball downcourt. Yes, it's accurate to say we're a 1-man team, but other guys, like Greg Anderson, and Ben Grams, also have to do their roles for us to win. Our match-up zone defense took us a long time to work this season, but it's effective because instead of a 2-3 or a 1-3-1, we match up exactly as the offense sets up. We're not guarding a man or an area, but rotating to the ball.
"But, mind you, a match-up zone looks good when you've got a 6-10 center," Kunze added. "Crawford is a heck of a player, and he had a great game, but there isn't a guy in the state who's going to guard Rick Rickert 1-on-1."
Not only that, but the coach doesn't have to worry about Rick breaking curfew. He might have a date on the eve of the final, but it'll be with a basketball, in his room.

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