The stage was big and, at times, the Garden City Gophers boys basketball squad looked like they had forgotten all their lines under the glare of the big lights.
But head coach Phil Penner knows his team. He knows when to get in their collective grille and holler and he knows when to back off and play the psychiatrist. Friday night in the semifinal of the MHSAA AAAA semifinal Penner did the Freud thing when his troops appeared to be unravelling. And the strategy worked en route to a gritty 77-70 victory over the St. Paul's Crusaders that sent the Gophers to Monday's championship game against the Oak Park Raiders.
The Raiders, ranked third, advanced with an 83-75 win over the second-seeded Sturgeon Heights Huskies in the late semifinal.
Garden City opened with a solid first quarter Friday night at the University of Winnipeg Duckworth Centre, building a 25-16 advantage. But the Crusaders dominated the second with a 23-3 run and a 41-32 lead at halftime.
Cue Penner with the timely pep talk at the intermission.
"I've yelled and screamed sometimes if I don't think we're competing hard enough," said Penner. "But today I didn't yell and scream very much, I was just trying to get them focused on what they needed to do because I could see there were a few times in the game where the atmosphere was a little bit big.
"You've got to understand, my point guard is Grade 10 and the rest of my starters are Grade 11 and they haven't been here before. We're real young that way so even though we've been in a lot of big games it's not the Provincial Semifinals. I give our guys credit for fighting back from a nine-point deficit at halftime. The guys work real, real hard and sometimes hard work is better than brains. You saw that today. We just kinda gutted it out.
"We showed a lot of character. We were a little sketchy down the stretch with our decision making, but the guys showed a lot of heart."
Did they ever. And then some.
The Gophers dominated the third quarter, out-scoring the Crusaders 31-9 and then withstood a late St. Paul's run for the win. Garden City, which won back-to-back championships in 2008-09, will now chase their third title in four years.
"Our coach has a lot of experience," said Gophers' guard Jordan Kelly, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "He's told us a lot of stories about past teams that won, so we know a lot of stories about past teams.
"What makes the team work? We're all friends off the court, so that helps us a lot on the court with chemistry. And we've just got a lot of shooters. A lot of people can shoot on our team and we're very young, so we just shoot the lights out sometimes."
Garden City was led by Chris Benevides who finished with 20 points while Andre Arruda-Welch had 16 and Mark Garcia had 13. Ross Book led St. Paul's with 19 and Theo Deezar had 16. Joey Nitychoruk, the Crusaders' big forward, got into foul trouble early and finished with 11.
In the second semifinal, the Raiders rallied from a 43-39 halftime deficit for the victory. Elliot Taylor led Oak Park with 26 points and 12 rebounds while Jordan Fotheringham finished with 16 -- including four three-pointers -- and John Kiesman added 15.
Garrick Hustal and Amarjit Basi led the Huskies with 18 points apiece.