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Lakers trying to end 94-year state drought

DL head coach Robb Flint shakes senior guard Rick Hutchinson's hand after a 16-point second half against Alexandria in Saturday's Section 8-3A semifinal at St. Cloud State University.1 / 3
Joe Mollberg (4) gains two well-earned points Saturday against Alexandria.2 / 3
Rick Hutchinson (15) drives to the hoop against Alexandria's Jordan Smith (3) Saturday night in the Section 8-3A semifinal game at SCSU.3 / 3

After the last second ticked off the clock during the 2011 Section 8-3A semifinal game between Detroit Lakes and Bemidji, there was a Red mob which stormed the floor after the upset by the Lakers.

Afterall, it was the first time in decades a DL boys' basketball team earned a berth in a section final game. Add in the fact, no Laker boys' basketball team had made the state playoffs since 1918.

It was a big deal in Lakerland.

"Last year, getting to the section finals was our goal," said DL senior guard, Lakers' all-time leading scorer and 500-plus career rebounder Joe Mollberg.

"Beating Bemidji was our championship."

The Lakers' memorable run ended with a defeat at the hands of heavily-favored St. Cloud Apollo in the section title game, thus fueling DL's senior class to return for another run for the 2011-12 season.

Fast forward to DL's Section 8-3A semifinal victory over Alexandria last Saturday at St. Cloud State University, and a more subdued post-game celebration was held by the DL team.

"This time, we are not satisfied with just making it to the finals," Mollberg said.

That's the attitude the North's top-seeded Lakers (21-7) will have entering the Section 8-3A championship game against the North's No. 2 seeded Fergus Falls (17-11) Thursday at Minnesota State University Moorhead, starting at 8 p.m.

The Lakers want to finish the business they started in last year's Section championship and that will only happen with DL's first state berth in 94 years.

"Last year was a big eye opener for us, it showed us what it takes to make state," said DL senior forward Brian Labat, who also claimed his 500th career rebound earlier this season. "It has been one of our dreams to make state since we were in elementary."

In their path is a talented Fergus Falls team, which incidentally is one of DL's biggest rivals in all sports.

The two schools have clashed in some memorable games on the football field, but Thursday -- in what surely will be a packed MSUM gym -- it could be one for the ages.

The two teams played once this year, with DL prevailing 65-61 Jan. 14. Of the common opponents the two teams have played, the Lakers are 5-4 and the Otters 5-5.

The January game featured the Otters going 12-34 from three-point range, while Labat did an effective job bottling up junior post Mike Millard to give him just six points.

DL's three seniors, Mollberg, Labat and Rick Hutchinson all scored in double digits, with 19, 13 and 14 points, respectively.

The Lakers also made it to the free throw line, going 16-23 for the game and 12-15 in the second half alone.

One can expect a three-point fest come Thursday by the Otters, but once again, the first focus will be to contain Millard.

And once again, that will be up to Labat, who has held the big Otter to just six points in their last two meetings, including last year's section quarterfinals.

"Millard is quick and athletic and has a very good inside game, with a lot of ball fakes," Labat said. "It will be a big part of our gameplan to stop him."

Mollberg will also cheat down sometimes to help Labat put some clamps on Millard, as well.

"We call Millard 'The Magician,' because he can make a lot of magic on the court," Mollberg said. "If Brian (Labat) does his thing, it will be a big advantage."

The Lakers will also have an eye on the accurate perimeter shooters, who are not shy taking the three.

"If you don't guard their three-point shot, they are very, very good," said DL head coach Robb Flint. "They live and die by the three. They have three players who are shooting 35-percent or better from three-point range."

Some of the defensive pressure will come from junior Kirk McLeod, who has handled guarding the other teams' best backcourt player all season.

But it will be a team effort to hem in the Otter shooters, so they don't end up "living" by the three.

For the Lakers offensively, they will see plenty of man-to-man defense, along with a mix of zone.

In most instances, defenses have keyed on Labat in the middle and Mollberg on the perimeter.

That has allowed players such as Hutchinson, senior guard Derek Long and McLeod to break off some big offensive outputs.

Hutchinson scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half in DL's 64-52 semifinal victory over Alexandria last week, while Long has posted a couple of 20-plus point games, as well.

"Kirk might be key, since they will probably be keying on Brian, Joe and Rick," Flint said. "He'll have to be aggressive going to the bucket."

It will also be crucial to avoid the letdown, something DL has had a couple of times over the course of the season.

But with intense focus and the hunger to make state residing in DL's locker room, if the Lakers lose, it won't be due to a letdown in play.

"This is the chance these guys have been waiting for all year," Flint stated. "They are hungry for it."

The 2011-12 Laker team has accomplished much success over the last two seasons, but there is one, big glaring hole they want to fill, and that's to end that 94-year state drought.

Thursday is their chance to do just that.

"I think we definitely have left our legacy here with two 20-win seasons and making it to the section finals twice," Mollberg said.

"But we have one more step to make."

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.