By RON DEUTER
POWERS - Undefeated North Central is on its way back to the Class D District 126 title game, but getting there required passing a tough second-half test issued by North Dickinson.
Ron Deuter/The Daily News Photos
North Central’s Travis Vincent (24) blocks a shot attempt by North Dickinson’s Reggie Johnson (24) during the first half of Wednesday’s Class D District 126 semifinal in Powers.
North Dickinson’s Logan O’Neil (20) looks for room to work under the basket.
North Dickinson’s Justin Clark (30) is fouled by North Central’s Travis Vincent (24) during the first half.
North Central’s Trevor Ekberg (40) goes up for a one-handed slam during the third quarter.
Trevor Ekberg (40) dunks in the third quarter as ND’s Justin Clark (30) and Noah Berg (14) defend.
North Dickinson’s Reggie Johnson (24) takes a shot.
The Jets, at one point leading the Nordics by 22 points, saw that lead cut to single digits late before settling for a 74-63 victory Wednesday night in a hard-fought district semifinal.
"They were kind of a thorn in your side," North Central coach Adam Mercier said of the Nordics. "You get up and they kept fighting back. Logan O'Neil played a great game tonight, showed a lot of passion and energy out there, especially in the second half."
O'Neil led all scorers with 19 points, 16 of those coming with an inspired second-half effort.
The Jets, up 34-21 on the Nordics at halftime, pushed the margin beyond 20 shortly after a one-handed dunk by Trevor Ekberg early in the third.
Ekberg led the Jets with 18 points, one of four North Central players in double figures.
But North Dickinson fought back, and a 3-pointer by Garrett O'Neil had the margin back down to 12 by the end of the third - signaling game on for the fourth.
"I was proud of the effort," Nordics coach Chris Mattson said. "We came in with a game plan. Halfway through that third quarter, we had to diverge from that and shoot our way back into the game.
"We actually had to play a North Central style of basketball, and I thought we played it better than they did for a good stretch there."
North Dickinson had the game within eight points early in the fourth before a lay-up by Ekberg followed by a tip from Josh Granquist made it 54-42 Jets. Later, Ekberg and Jason Whitens dropped short jumpers, and Caleb Martin had a pair at the line to mushroom the lead back up to 14 points.
But O'Neil answered for North Dickinson, first draining a long two, and then following up with a trey from about the same location just left of the top of the key.
"O'Neil, our senior leader, played the best I've seen him play in four years," Mattson said.
Noah Berg added a couple of buckets down low, and a triple by Hunter Mattson had North Dickinson back within nine with 1:30 to go.
Free throws by John Granquist and Ekberg helped prevent North Dickinson from getting any closer. Ekberg scored 10 of his 18 in the final frame. The Jets only missed four of their 18 free throw attempts. North Dickinson hit just 12-of-20 at the stripe.
Berg finished with 12 points for ND, as did Reggie Johnson. Justin Clark and Garrett O'Neil each had seven.
"We hit some shots, clawed our way back, but their such a good team," Mattson said. "They have so many offensive weapons. Ekberg had a heck of a game. He showed himself nicely."
While North Central's official rebounding totals were not available, Ekberg and Travis Vincent easily led what was a dominant North Central performance on the boards.
"Their offensive rebounding was, I think, the difference for them," Mattson said. "They pounded the glass, a lot of times having two or three looks at the basket. Being undersized, our kids sure played a whale of a game."
Double figure scorers for the Jets in addition to Ekberg were Josh Granquist with 13, Rob Granquist with 12 and Martin with 10.
"We got that nice lead in the third, and I let my foot off the gas a little too much," Mercier said. "They were able to creep back in there."
Mercier said the challenge provided by the Nordics only serves as a glimpse of what's ahead.
"The target has been on our back all season, and it has grown larger," he said. "Every team wants to be the team to knock us off. As long as we stick together, keep playing hard and defend like we did in the first half, I think we'll be fine."
North Dickinson hung close with the Jets during the first quarter, but as the second stanza got going, the Jets seized control, using a run late in the half to build its first double-digit lead.
"We attacked the basket really well," Mercier said. "Defensively we got in some passing lanes, we cleared rebounds and pushed the ball. We lost momentum in that third quarter, but that was mostly my fault there."
North Dickinson finished an injury-plagued season at 14-8.
"I couldn't be more proud of my kids and their effort," Mattson said. "It's going to be hard to see our seniors go. We had a great season and have nothing to feel ashamed about. To have North Central rattled on their home court in the fourth quarter, we'll hang our hat on that.
"We did the best we could, and I think the better team won. They deserved to win and we wish them all the luck as they go on in the tournament."
North Central, now 22-0, moves on to face Carney-Nadeau in Friday's final. The game, beginning at 7 p.m. (EST) will be played at Bark River-Harris. Carney dumped the Broncos 72-60 in Wednesday's other 126 semifinal.
"We need to play our game and just focus on things we can do better, especially on the defensive end," Mercier said. "And we need to play aggressive on the offensive end. If we do those things, get some good role play off our bench, I think we have a good chance on Friday night."
N. Dickinson 10 11 17 25 - 63
N. Central 15 19 16 24 - 74
NORTH DICKINSON: Berg 12, L. O'Neil 19, Johnson 12, Clark 7, G. O'Neil 7, Mattson 6. FT: 12-20. F: 18.
NORTH CENTRAL: Bilski 5, R. Granquist 12, J. Granquist 13, Vincent 8, Whitens 8, Martin 10, Ekberg 18. FT: 14-18. F: 17.
FG shooting - ND: 22-48 (3-pt: 7-16); NC: Not available. 3-pt FGs - ND: L. O'Neil (2), Mattson (2), Berg, Johnson, G. O'Neil' NC: Bilski, R. Granquist. Rebounding - ND: 24 (Clark 9); NC: Not available.