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Cloquet surges, but can't quite catch up

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A frantic second-half rally fell one last-second shot short as the Hermantown Hawks eliminated Cloquet from the Section 7AAA girls basketball tournament last Friday night in Cloquet.

A slow start in which the ’Jacks were held without a point for over six minutes and without a field goal for over seven minutes proved too much to overcome as fourth-seeded Cloquet fell 55-53.

“The big thing was that the girls just battled,” Coach Jeff Ojanen said. “This is a group that does not like to lose and even though things didn’t go our way at the end, they battled and that matters a lot.”

Cloquet led 6-4 early in the game only to see the Hawks reel off a 13-0 run to establish a 17-6 lead midway through the first half. A later 10-0 run saw Hermantown lead 27-10 before Cloquet scored the final five points of the first half.

“We couldn’t stay in front, we couldn’t stop their attacks to the basket,” Ojanen said. “When you can’t stay in front (on defense), everything’s got to rotate and find the open girl. They did a good job of that.”

The second half saw the Hawks keep Cloquet at arm’s length — until midway through the session.

Trailing 50-32 with 7:20 to play, Cloquet went on a 21-5 run the rest of the way and finally found its shooting touch, which wasn’t there in the first half.

“It wasn’t much, just making little adjustments that win games,” Ojanen said. “We came out and played the way we were capable of playing in the second half.”

A 14-0 run featuring three-pointers by Gracie Sinisalo and Breanne Baker and six points from sophomore Kassidy Steen cut Hermantown’s lead to 50-46 with 1:21 left in the game.

Four free throws from Hermantown’s Emily Neumann helped Hermantown stay in front, but a pair of free throws by Kaylee McMillen and another field goal by Steen made it 54-50 with less than half a minute to play.

Trailing 55-50, Cloquet got a huge three-point shot by Sinisalo to cut the margin to two with 10 seconds left. Baker then stole the Hermantown inbounds pass and, from her knees, found McMillen for a last-gasp three-point shot.

McMillen’s shot hit the rim, bounced up, hit the rim again and then fell away at the buzzer.

“It was a good look, we got a good look,” Ojanen said. “Four years ago, we were playing at Hermantown and they beat us on a shot like that. I was hoping we’d do that to them. But we gave ourselves a chance to win the game.”

Cloquet led the game only twice, at 4-2 and 6-4, but nearly pulled out the game thanks to its frantic second half rally.

Steen led Cloquet and the floor with a game-high 25 points. Neumann led Hermantown with 18 points for the game.

“[Kassidy] did a nice job,” Ojanen said. “The best part about it is that we get her for two more years. [Hermantown] did everything they could do without getting called for a foul to try to stop her. They were hounding her inside, pushing her, grabbing her, and she kept playing.”

The team now says goodbye to four seniors — Sinisalo, Sammy Zeadow, Tara Longseth and Baker.

“I love them to death,” Ojanen said. “They are great kids and we talk to them about being great teammates. They are the essence of that. They did everything we asked them to do and they always did it right. That’s what I’m most proud of. We will miss them.”