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They came that close

By Staff | Mar 13, 2014

Lori Gronvold/PCT Rugby High School boys basketball assistant coach Brian Olson consoles players as the Class B state championship closes. The Panthers fell 68-58 to Fargo-Oak Grove in overtime for their only loss of the season.

Editor’s note: We wanted to do a tournament notebook in the fashion of former Tribune Editor Frank Hornstein, who covered the 1962 state tournament. Hornstein had fun with the report and sprinkled it with anecdotes, commentary and the facts. Only thing we’re adding this time is thoughts from the players.

For the few of us who got a later jump heading east on March 6, the sea of orange shirts – dominating the rainbow of school spirit at the Alerus Center – was a warm welcome. Mixed precipitation pelted stragglers, who left Rugby in mid-afternoon, forging sheets of ice on windshields through Devils Lake and making for a slow start to the trip.

A slow start nearly plagued the Rugby High School boys basketball team as it opened a second straight trip to state against Region 8 champion New Town.

The Panther faithful were out in a full force, a loud, lobster-colored mass of hope. Rugby’s large following was perfect to set the tone for the evening session of day one. The previous two games were decided by two points each and Class B basketball fans got more than their money’s worth through the quarterfinals.

RHS junior forward Brad Heidlebaugh, the most explosive post player in the field, broke a 5-5 tie early in the first quarter with a 3-pointer. The shot of the game came minutes later when New Town senior Joe Baker hit a buzzer beater from about three-quarters of the court. New Town led 15-14.

“I was right behind him and I didn’t really look up much until it got toward the end and I was like, ‘It’s going in,’ and it went in and that was pretty cool,” Heidlebaugh said. “I think we were focused all first half, but it kind of slowed our momentum.”

The shot was No. 1 in SportsCenter’s Top-10 Plays that night on ESPN. RHS won 64-58 in overtime.

The Eagles led 30-25 at the half, but the Panthers didn’t panic. The ball was spread around as Heidlebaugh had 9 points, junior Zach Miller 8 and senior Jaedon Haman 7.

Haman’s dogged play was pivotal in keeping RHS in the game as the shooting-threat tandem of senior Chris Hamilton and Tanner Bernhardt combined to shoot 0 for 10 on 3-point attempts in the half.

Haman finished the night with six rebounds (five, offensively) as the 5-foot-9 hustler leaped against New Town junior twin towers Elijah (6-4) and Daryl Grady (6-3).

“What worked for me is they really stood underneath and didn’t really box out,” Haman said, “so I tried to find an open spot, get position on them and go from there.”

The Panthers didn’t recapture the lead until there was just 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Haman took a bounce pass from Heidlebaugh and finished in quick transition to give RHS a 42-41 lead. The Eagles turned the ball over and Miller caught an outlet pass from Heidlebaugh to beat the buzzer on a layup.

“It was just pretty intense,” Miller said. “We were all kind of on our toes. In the first half they stuck around and we knew we had to come out hard in the second half. We knew they could play with us and that didn’t happen a lot during the year.”

The game went back and forth in the fourth quarter and Haman scored on a reverse after his offensive rebound, tying the game at 49-49 with 2:10 left. The game marked the first time RHS trailed all season in the fourth quarter.

Daryl Grady hit a pair of free throws with 1:49 left and fouled out a minute later. Miller sent the game to overtime by converting both ends of a one-and-one bonus with 39 seconds left.

“It was a lot of pressure and I was definitely feeling it,” Miller said. “I’ve been pretty good from the line this year and I missed a few early on, so I was a little worried. It was a lot of pressure, but I knocked them down.”

New Town senior guard Wayne Fox barely missed on a floater with six seconds left in regulation.

And then after missing on all eleven 3-pointers he shot through the first 32 minutes of play, Bernhardt made one for the first points of overtime.

“It just gave the whole team momentum to go into overtime and pull it off,” Bernhardt said. “You just have to keep shootin’ in that situation and that’s what I tried to do.”

Fox fouled out in the first minute and Heidlebaugh put RHS ahead 70-63 on a 3-point play, which saddled Elijah Grady with his fourth foul. Heidlebaugh flexed after the strong move, marking the team’s first full control of momentum all night.

“At that point, I thought the game was pretty good there,” Heidlebaugh said. “That pretty much sealed the deal and gave us a good end to that game.”

Heidlebaugh had game-highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds. Miller finished with 18 and 6, and Haman had 16 and 6. Daryl Grady had 14 points and 8 rebounds for the Eagles, Fox had 8 and 11, and Baker finished with 13 and 6.

The undefeated Panthers escaped their wildest challenge of the season to earn a semifinal appearance against Region 4 champion North Star and Heidlebaugh broke 1962 state champion Paul Presthus’ RHS single-season scoring record. Presthus had the record at 614 and Heidlebaugh had 623 after round one at state.

“It’s an accomplishment,” Heidlebaugh said. “It’s not my first goal I wanted to get this year, but it’s a nice accomplishment I worked a lot toward over the last few years.”

The Bearcats capped a day of incredible first-round finishes by beating Region 7 champion Beulah 52-50 on a buzzer-beater from junior forward Christian Kvilvang.

“That was a pretty sweet bank shot right there,” Heidlebaugh said. “Him and (Alex) Weston are their go-to guys and he was feeling it that game and they gave it to him and he made a good play.”

It took a few seconds to begin processing what an unlikely first day that was. Then again, it’s Class B and it’s known for loads of highlights. On this day, three games decided by two points each and a total difference of 12 points through all four matchups.

Two of the four-seeded teams fell, including No. 4 Beulah and No. 3 Cavalier. The Tornadoes (Region 2) lost 53-51 to Linton-HMB (Region 3). No. 2 seed Fargo-Oak Grove (Region 1) beat Flasher (Region 5) 67-65.

Semifinal round

With superior strength down low and more experience through the lineup, the Panthers stayed a couple steps ahead of the Bearcats on March 7. Rugby won 54-44.

Heidlebaugh picked up his second foul with 2:54 left in the opening frame, in what became a growing theme of foul trouble for RHS in the tournament.

“I think it was just a different reffing style,” Heidlebaugh said. “You had to be a little bit more careful, especially with a lot of fouls. They called every game like that, so you just have to play the way the refs are calling it.”

Junior guard Weston scored 12 of North Star’s 19 points in the first half. The Panthers rebounded from a slow start the night before and had all the starters feeling good. Bernhardt shook off his anemic shooting in the first round and hit timely 3-pointers in each quarter. Heidlebaugh deflated North Star hopes with a pair of two-handed slams in the second quarter. The 6-foot-4 forward was the only player to jam in the tournament. His confidence jumping off two feet grew throughout the season and led to authoritative dunks.

“I worked on the dunking game, you could say,” Heidlebaugh said. “It’s just a really big booster to our team and really gets other teams down, so it’s a win-win for us.”

Senior guard Chris Hamilton gave the Panthers a 26-19 halftime lead on a 3-pointer with five seconds left. Hamilton hit another 3, just 11 seconds into the third quarter, giving RHS its first double digit lead since Heidlebaugh’s second dunk made it 22-12 with 4:30 left in the first half.

“For me it was really important because I think that was the first one I hit through the whole tournament,” Hamilton said. “That was a big confidence booster and got me going. North Star was kind of coming back toward the end of the first half, so it was good to get a 3 before half and it’s a good way to start a quarter or half. That was pretty big and got us rolling right away.”

North Star freshman Jayden Komrosky responded with a 3-pointer, but Bernhardt hit one of his own right after and the Panthers had full control. Heidlebaugh and Miller slashed their way to the next six points and RHS led 38-24 with four minutes left in the third quarter.

A three-minute scoring drought followed for the Panthers, but Heidlebaugh hit a free-throw with 1:11 left on a signature drive. He proved throughout the tournament a superior ability to create his own shot off the dribble. Heidlebaugh pulled back a pumped fist as he bounced off a defender and his shot rimmed out.

The Panthers flirted with 8- to 12-point leads throughout the fourth quarter. RHS took a 50-40 lead with 2:15 left on a give-and-go play between Heidlebaugh and Bernhardt. Heidlebaugh snagged a North Star pass and hit Bernhardt racing ahead. Bernhardt then dropped the ball back off to a hard-charging Heidlebaugh.

“I tried not to be too selfish,” Bernhardt said. “We try to leave the ball for each other, so I knew what was gonna happen before he even passed it.”

Heidlebaugh and Bernhardt led with a team-high 16 points each and Heidlebaugh had 14 rebounds. Miller had 10 and 10.

The win set up a state championship game against Oak Grove. The Grover beat Linton-HMB 76-68 in the other semifinal with junior Christian Adams scoring a game-high 29. Junior teammate Carter Kretchman added 18 and was just warming up.

“We watched the first half of their game against Linton and, from what I saw, (Kretchman) didn’t look to score as much as he did against us,” Hamilton said. “Going in we knew he was a really good player and he could score. We knew he’d like to drive and dish. I guess he shot better than we were hoping him to.”

Championship heartbreak

Championship Saturday had a nice feel to it. The weather was unseasonably warm and Rugby fans had nothing but warm thoughts about their team’s chances. The Panthers entered the final unscathed at 27-0, having scheduled as tough a non-district slate as feasible.

Rugby trailed for the first time in a fourth quarter and survived with an overtime win in the quarterfinals. The Panthers returned to normalcy with a typical double-digit win in the semifinal. Without a loss yet there was little reason to think the No. 1 team would drop the last one.

The shootout that transpired was riveting. The best players on each team highlighted why their team’s advanced that far. Unfortunately, for those in orange and black, the undefeated season was no more. Oak Grove forced overtime and scored the only points in the extra session en route to a 68-58 win.?Heidlebaugh played perhaps his best game yet, bulldozing his way to 24 points and 11 rebounds, but the first-team all-state performer didn’t have enough time on the floor with fellow post-threat Miller.

Miller had his second foul less than three minutes into the game. Hamilton gave RHS a 14-8 lead with back-to-back 3-pointers to end the first quarter and start the second.

“The first quarter we played really good defense,” Hamilton said. “We knew that was the biggest thing all year. Holding them to 8 in the first quarter was huge. I think the first quarter went the way we wanted, but the last four minutes of the second quarter has kind of been our downfall all year and that’s when they made their run.”

RHS led by as much as 8 in the second quarter, but couldn’t gain an advantage on the boards. Miller was whistled for his third foul midway through the quarter and Heidlebaugh and Haman picked up their second fouls in the closing minutes. The Grovers took advantage of the Panthers’ tentative play and closed the half on a 10-0 run to lead 27-25.

The Panthers failed to score after a Heidlebaugh 3-pointer with 4:54 left in the second.

“(We were) stalling on offense and not really getting our flow going,” Heidlebaugh said. “They went to the 1-3-1 trap and got us focusing on that. We knew it was coming. We just couldn’t get going in our normal offense that brought them back in the game.”

Heidlebaugh broke the drought with the first bucket of the second half, but the Grovers maintained control and took a 38-31 lead on back-to-back pull-up jumpers by Kretchman.

Bernhardt went on a 9-0 run by himself to start the fourth quarter. He connected on his first two 3-point attempts of the quarter and was fouled on a third. He hit all three free throws and RHS led 44-41 with 6:08 left in regulation.

“It was crazy,” Bernhardt said. “You feel so good for a couple minutes and they’d hit one and then you’d hit one again. The momentum just went back and forth.”

The RHS lead grew to 48-41 with less than four minutes remaining and the Kretchman onslaught began. The 5-foot-9 guard hit three 3-pointers from NBA range. The first 3 cut the deficit to 48-44 with 3:36 left. The second got the Grovers within three at 50-47 with 2:52 left. Rugby led 52-50 after Kretchman’s groove continued with a 3-point play, where he was hammered on a gusty drive. The foul was charged to the Panthers’ top defender Haman, his fifth and final foul.

Adams hit his biggest shot, in an otherwise quiet 11-point night, on a 3-pointer with 1:11 left to tie RHS at 55-55. Bernhardt stepped into a 3 with 54 seconds left and RHS led again. Kretchman responded with a step-back 3-pointer from steps beyond the professional 3-point line. Kretchman finished with a whopping 36 points and a tournament MVP trophy.

“I really do think it’s a game that we had, but Kretchman just decided it was his time and showed us how great a basketball player,” Heidlebaugh said. “He willed them to a win. It had to be one of the craziest games in Class B. It’s not fun to look back at, but it was a great game to play and I’m sure everyone had fun watching it.”

That was it for the Panthers, who missed all 10 of their shots in overtime. Kretchman hit six free-throws in OT, and finished 11 for 11 at the line. He was 5 for 7 from long range.

The feeling was one that Rugby hadn’t experienced all season.

“It was tough,” Heidlebaugh said. “We weren’t expecting to do that well, but once we got there and (were) 27-0 it was all starting to hit that we haven’t lost a game this year. We beat some really good teams and I guess we just couldn’t finish that last one.”

Hamilton and Haman wrapped up their stellar careers with a runner-up finish and two state tournament appearances.

“It meant a lot to play for the Rugby basketball program,” Haman said. “I couldn’t have asked for any better coaches or players to play for or play with. Sometimes things don’t go the way you want to, but I couldn’t have asked for a better season. It was a really good experience.”

Not surprisingly, the tournament’s spirit award went to the biggest contingent in the building – the Rugby Panthers. Despite the loss, the Rugby fans stuck around well after the game to console their players. A standing ovation awaited at RHS the following afternoon as a gymnastics event paused for the packed audience to recognize a team that captured the attention, imagination and hopes of an entire city.

“It’s the best,” Heidlebaugh said. “We have the best fans pretty much overall in the state. Even through our defeat, they never really saw it coming. They knew we worked our butts off and they’re happy for us. I can’t say enough about our fans, but they’re here for us through and through.”

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