NORTH SIOUX CITY | Jason Kleis knew he had a major rebuilding task ahead of himself entering his 11th season as Dakota Valley’s boys basketball coach.
Only two starters and two reserves were returning, the four of them combining for a 13-point average from last year’s fifth-place state tournament team.
Kleis knew he had to rely upon scoring balance. He expected different scoring leaders in games.
Guess what happened. The Panthers are in the South Dakota Class A state tournament for the third straight year, taking a 17-6 record and a four-game winning streak into tonight’s 8:45 (CST) game against Sioux Valley (19-3) at Rapid City’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
“I knew we had talented kids coming up,” said Kleis. “We had to figure out two things. Who was going to step up in certain roles? We had kids who knew how to score, but they were on JV and didn’t have varsity experience. The guys naturally did that.
“We also had to instill confidence. We needed them to score. Guys like Jack Graves, who scored two points a game last year, has stepped up into double figures. Jack McCabe was scoring six points a game and he’s up to 13, 14 points a game stepping into a different role. He’s being more aggressive.”
McCabe, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, heads up the starting lineup for the seventh-seeded Panthers, one of four teams from the deep Dakota XII Conference headed to the western side of the state. McCabe has a team-best 13.9 scoring average, which includes 41 percent shooting (41 of 99) from 3-point range.
McCabe is also the squad leader in assists (110) and steals (31), while sharing a tie with 6-3 junior forward Charlie Cox at 6.2 rebounds per game. Averaging 4.8 assists per game, McCabe is responsible for ball movement and has thrown scoring passes to three others with double-digit averages – Cox (11.6), 5-11 freshman reserve Paul Bruns (11.0) and 6-1 senior forward Jack Graves (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Graves, a 54 percent shooter, scored 15 points and hit the game-winning basket in a dramatic 61-60 Region 4A tournament win over Vermillion, which that night received 25 points from A.J. Plitzuweit. That was about seven points less than the average the son of University of South Dakota women’s basketball coach Dawn Plitzuweit brought into the contest.
“Sometimes, we’re hard to scout or hard to guard because so many of these players can hit open shots when the opportunity arises,” said Kleis. “I don’t know how you’d scout us. Sometimes, we lack knowing how our guys are going to create scoring plays. Graves hit a shot with 2.2 seconds left in that win against Vermillion, a pull-up shot and as dramatic as a finish as you’d ever see. We’ve had some big moments.”
Some of those big moments have been provided off the bench by Bruns, who suited up for varsity a year ago as an eighth-grader. A 51 percent shooter who’s 39 of 91 (43 percent) from 3-point range, Bruns has averaged 17.3 points in three tournament wins, 24 coming in a first-round 79-69 win over Canton, a game which Dakota Valley trailed by 14 points in the third quarter and eight shortly into the start of the fourth.
Bruns also paced a quartet of double-digit scorers with 15 points in the 59-50 Sweet 16 win over Bon Homme. The Panthers enjoyed some of their best balance of the season while qualifying for their fifth state appearance, getting 11 points from Cox while both McCabe and 6-4 senior center Brennan Moran (4.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) each added 10 points.
“We rely on ball movement,” said Kleis. “We move the ball inside and out, side to side and we run a fair amount of set plays. There’s no true post. We get the ball moving. We have good (shot) selection. That fits this team.”
McCabe, Cox and Graves will be joined in tonight’s starting lineup by 6-foot senior guard Tanner Smith (7.4 ppg, 50 assists) and 5-11 junior Nathan Rice (5.6 ppg, 37 of 59 3-point, 53 assists). Bruns and Moran are the top reserves along with 6-3 senior guard Zach Masters (2.3 ppg).
Dakota Valley will face an offensive juggernaut in Sioux Valley, the team Kleis’ squad defeated last year to make the state tournament. Augustana (S.D.) recruit Trevor Hanson (22.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg), a 6-7 senior post, is one of four starters with double-figure scoring averages for the second-seeded Cossacks, which average 78 points per game with six games over 90 points, including a pair at 99.
Another quality Cossack scorer is 6-4 senior guard Trevor Olson (21.0 ppg), who also averages a blocked shot per game, one less than Hanson.
“They’re going to be a nightmare to guard,” said Kleis. “I don’t know if we’re going to stop them, but we’ll have to slow them down and don’t give up anything easy. We need to score on them because if we take quick shots, they’ll get out and run against us all day. We’ll need to be selective when we’re in half court, then when we get back on defense, we’ll have to slow them down.”