Cloquet comes close, falls to ’RapidsEyeing their first state tournament berth in 13 years, Cloquet again came up short to rival Grand Rapids 64-58 in the Section 7AAA boys basketball championship before a sitting-in-the-aisles crowd last Friday night at Duluth Denfeld High School.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
DULUTH — Eyeing their first state tournament berth in 13 years, Cloquet again came up short to rival Grand Rapids 64-58 in the Section 7AAA boys basketball championship before a sitting-in-the-aisles crowd last Friday night at Duluth Denfeld High School.
In their sixth straight state appearance, the Thunderhawks (20-9) took on Marshall in Wednesday’s State Class AAA quarterfinal as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press, while Cloquet lost their third section final in five years — all against Grand Rapids.
“I’m starting to feel like Marv Levy here,” Cloquet Coach Steve Battaglia said, referencing the early ’90s Buffalo Bills coach who lost four consecutive Super Bowls. “We’ve been here a few times, but getting over that hump is the hardest part.”
Particularly consistent in the postseason, Cloquet (19-10) — who got to the finals after last Wednesday’s buzzer-beating 69-68 win on Hermantown in double-overtime — came out slow last Friday. Still, trailing by as many as 17, the Lumberjacks finished the first half on an 11-0 run and trailed 30-24 by the break.
The Thunderhawks’ Alex Illikainen — healed after a broken bone in his left hand — seemed to put the game away when the 6-foot-9 center and Division I prospect stole the ball and went coast-to-coast for a slam inside six minutes. But two three-pointers by Nate Weets and 11 points from reserve freshman Jordan Diver kept Cloquet close throughout.
“I’m just glad we had a little cushion there, because Cloquet came at us with everything they had right until the very end,” Grand Rapids Coach Dan Elhard said as his team cut down the nets. “Steve does a great job with those guys. There was no quit in Cloquet.”
Illikainen, a sophomore, led all scorers with 24 points and 16 rebounds, giving him more than 1,000 each on his career. Justin Gill and AJ Watland added 19 and 15 points, respectively, for a program making its 12th state appearance in school history.
“Each year it’s amazing to get down there,” Illikainen said. “Tonight we got pushed. Cloquet is a great team, but we were lucky to get up early, take control of the lead and have enough to win.”
A win is something a saddened Dillon Johnson wanted most.
“That’s something every kid dreams about,” said Johnson, a junior, who scored 12 points in the loss. “We played our hearts out; we just could never find our way back in it and pull it out.”
“You have to have your motor going all game to beat a team like that,” said junior Adam Laine, who had 12 points. “We feel bad to come so close. We worked our tails off, but just ran out of time.”
Scoring discrepancies appeared to cost Cloquet two times, including three points, as a Grand Rapids basket that was waved off in the opening half was mysteriously counted, while one of Cloquet’s four second-half three-pointers was ruled a two-pointer.
“It’s not like we feel we got something stolen, we just didn’t get any bounces,” Battaglia said. “I’m proud. We spent all night digging out of holes. We could have rolled over and died twice.”