Boys basketball: 'Jacks fall in 7AAA final
Even before the championship game Thursday, March 15, the Section 7AAA boys basketball bracket already resembled so many crumpled-up NCAA brackets that fans are used to throwing away during March Madness.
But sixth-seeded Hermantown's 68-58 victory over fourth-seeded Cloquet at Duluth East High School, which sends the Hawks to their second state tournament in school history, gives meaning to the term "bracket-buster."
"This is March Madness at its finest," Hawks second-year coach Andy Fenske said. "We were the sixth seed, but I loved our draw and matchups. We were flying under the radar as a sixth seed. Not many people thought we'd get to this point, much less take a 10-point victory against a really tough team.
"These boys' resiliency is really something, and they earned their shot to be playing next week," Fenske said.
David Birkeland scored 19 points for Hermantown (14-15), which advances to play a to-be-determined top-three seeded team in the Class AAA state tournament quarterfinals Wednesday, March 21, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"Obviously, we like being the underdog," Birkeland said. "We have to just enjoy this moment and get ready to go down to the Barn (Williams Arena)."
The Hawks nearly led the entire game, taking a 34-28 lead into the locker room as four players scored at least seven points.
Cloquet (17-12) rallied in the second half, scoring 10 consecutive points to turn a six-point deficit into its largest lead at 44-40.
But Birkeland hit a jumper, Connor Bich's basket tied the game and Noah Soumis — who scored all 12 of his points in the second half — drove the lane for the go-ahead basket. Bich, who scored 15 points, then hit a 3-pointer to cap a 9-0 run that gave Hermantown the lead for good and send a team that started the season 0-6 to the state tournament.
Ironically, it was a 64-63 overtime loss to the Lumberjacks that started the turnaround. The Hawks lost 66-57 to Cloquet in mid-February and were 8-15 before they closed the regular season with three wins and then upset higher-seeded Duluth Denfeld in the section quarterfinals.
"I can't believe it," a stunned Bich said afterward. "I had no idea we'd go this far after starting 0-6. It's unbelievable."
Better team defense is the simple reason for the improvement, Fenske and his players say.
"We had to lock it up on defense, and we really came together as a group and finished it here," Birkeland said.
The senior guard made 6 of 9 field goals to pace the Hawks to an outstanding 24-for-43 (58.3 percent) shooting performance.
"He's found a way to make sure he's executing," Fenske said of Birkeland. "He's the motor that gets us going and keeps pushing these guys to keep them going. Sometimes that irritates the guys, but they are starting to find out that it's for the betterment of the team."
Fenske coached the Princeton girls team to its first state tournament in school history in 2015, the same year as the Hermantown boys made their lone appearance.
Now he'll bring a true Cinderella to the ball.
Cloquet — Spencer Wehr 9, Bryce Turnbull 7, Tyler Moose 5, Tim Pokornowski 21, Alex Leuzzo 12, Riley Johnson 2, Markus Pokornowski 2. Totals 22 13-20 58.
3-point goal — Moose.
Hermantown — Connor Bich 15, Noah Soumis 12, Peter Soumis 9, David Birkeland 19, Alex Bjorlin 3, Kevin Bauman 10. Totals 24 12-23 68.
3-point goals — Bich 3, P. Soumis 2, Birkeland 2, Bjorlin.