(The following appeared in the March 21 edition of the Tribune.)
The setting was perfect for the Region 6 Boys’ Basketball Championship: the clash of purple and orange in the large crowd; the Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood pep band’s music soared in the Dome; and an intensity for the rematch between two top teams that had no rival during the season. But unlike the game before, only one team would continue their season.
Without Hunter Hager’s ten critical free throw points, Rugby would not have won. Brad Heidlebaugh, like most nights, still lead the team in scoring, with 24 points. In a distant second, Hager put up 12 points, most of which came from the 8 trips to line. And Tanner Bernhardt ended the game with 7.
On the bombers stat line, Austin Lee, known for putting up points whenever the ball was in his hands, led with 22 points, with four three-pointers in the second half. By the end of the game, the announcers should have called his shots “Lee-pointers”. Ethan Hennessy pulled his weight by putting up 13 points and Jared Hamilton added 8.
Even with all the action, fouls were not an issue on either side even if the fans would beg to differ. Berthold had 9 total called against them, and the Panthers had 10. Only Bernhardt and Marshall White managed to get into trouble, both with four.
After both teams couldn’t turn possessions into points, a heart-pounding first quarter ensued. The Panthers had a three-minute scoring drought before Heidlebaugh managed a jumper to put the team on the board. The Bombers took advantage during that time, and put up 9 points. But Rugby had an 8-point run that put them in the lead, 12-9, at the end of the first.
In the second, the Panthers started with the ball and had a shot clock problem that resulted in a three from Heidlebaugh not counting. The Bombers followed with a shotclock violation and gave possession away. Zach Miller put up the first points of the quarter after no team scored for over two minutes. Heidlebaugh put up a couple of layups to bring the Panthers to their largest lead of 12. Hennessy gave the Bombers their first points of the quarter after four scoreless minutes. Then, Lee ended another drought by putting up a three to bring the panthers lead down to seven points. Ryan Michels slammed Hennessy’s shot out of bounds before he could attempt a buzzer beater that would have put the Bombers to within 7 points of Rugby.
The second half presented an almost identical game to the first. After they put the ball onto the court, Rugby came out with their normal third quarter energy that puts most games out of reach. But that didn’t hold the Bombers back. They played a back-and-forth game that kept things interesting. Heidlebuagh managed a stunning put-back jumper after being fouled by Hennessy. After the ball was inbounded, it was passed out and ruled in favor of the Panthers, which caused the Berthold crowd to erupt in jeers. Shotclock problems from the previous two nights of the tournament persisted and delayed the game for a few minutes with 1:16 left in the third. Lee put the Bombers within three points of the Panthers – the closest they had come since their four-point lead in the first quarter. Nolan Hovland fouled with 1.7 seconds left, which was just enough time for Heidlebaugh to snag a steal and attempt a buzzer beater.
Lee got the purple crowd cheering with a three-pointer in the first minute of the fourth quarter. To answer, Hager put up a fast layup to put the Panthers ahead by two. Again, Lee had other ideas and and put the Bombers up by a point with another three. After sending the ball out, the Bombers employed a full-court press to pressure the Panthers into taking bad shots. Hager used his trip to the line to put the Rugby ahead by one point again. After White went to the line, the game was tied at 40 points each with 4:37 left. Hager again went to the line twice to extend the Panthers’ small lead. Hamilton gave the Bombers back the lead with a baseline three. But Heidlbaugh decided otherwise and, after a layup, brought back the lead, 44-43. Hovland, after a short jumper, got fouled when moving down the court by Lee.
Heidlebuagh then made it a two possession game with a pair of layups, with a minute left. White was given two opportunities to bring the game within one shot, and succeeded on his second try. Hager ended that by making his two free throws with 41 seconds left. Hennessy reignited the Bomber’s hopes with a three at the top of the key. After Berthold’s short timeout, Lee missed a critical three-pointer before what most thought to be the final buzzer sounded.
But the Panthers’ fate wasn’t sound yet. The refs called a foul and gave Hager two free throws to put the game out of reach. He made both. And as the buzzer sounded, the Panthers were making a third straight appearance at the State Class B boys’ basketball Tournament.
“I knew I didn’t do the things I wanted to earlier,” Hager said, ” So why not make my free throws? I was scared. I’ve gone over this lots of times in practice. I just gotta make these.”
“It feels great to go back,” Heidlebaugh said, “but this isn’t the final goal.”
With incredible performances by both this season and over their careers, the coaches of Region 6 could not decide between Heidlebaugh and Lee for the title of Region 6 Senior Athlete of the year. Both were named to the All-Region team, and both were named Co-Senior Athlete of the Year.
The game was preceded by a rough third-place game between Minot’s two private schools, the Our Redeemer’s Christian School Knights and the Bishop Ryan Lions – who the Panthers beat two nights earlier. ORCS tamed the Lions, 76-62 easily, with a fourth quarter surge.
The Panthers traveled down to the Bismarck Civic Center on Thursday, hoping to finish what they started last year. They entered as the No.2 seed, after Four Winds-Minnewauken, and opened play against Parshall.
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