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Snapping a 94-Year State Drought

Laker boy's basketball captains Rick Hutchinson, Joe Mollberg and Brian Labat hoist the Section 8-3A championship trophy above their heads in victory following their 44-41 win over Fergus Falls. Brian Basham/DL Newspapers

After a 94-year layoff, the Detroit Lakes boys' basketball team will return to the state playoffs.

The North top-seeded Lakers survived a physical defensive struggle against No. 2 Fergus Falls Thursday evening in front of a packed Nemzek Gym crowd on the campus of Minnesota State University Moorhead, winning 44-41 to clinch the Section 8-3A championship.

The section title tilt became an instant classic between two rivals vying for a berth in the Class 3A state tournament, which starts Wednesday inside the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Seeding for the tournament will be completed at 10 a.m. Saturday.

"We've been working for (state) all of our lives and finally with this group of seniors and juniors, we put it together at the right time," said senior post Brian Labat.

What the Lakers (22-7) put together Thursday was one of their grittiest defensive performances of the season. But on the flipside, the Otters (17-12) played just as stingy defense, as each team was held under 50 points.

There was plenty of physical contact inside the paint, where the referees were loose on their calls on both sides of the floor, making points a premium throughout the game.

"It was definitely a playoff atmosphere," said senior guard Joe Mollberg, who led the Lakers with 13 points. "The refs let things fly.

"I give Fergus Falls credit, they put a guy on me tight all night and I had no easy shots."

The Otters, who are known as a three-point launching team, were just 3-14 from beyond the arc, a focal point DL head coach Robb Flint stressed during preparation for the championship game.

"I thought we did a good job scouting them and not allowing them the three-point shot," Flint said. "But we didn't do a good job blocking out and gave up too many offensive rebounds."

Second chances were what kept Fergus Falls in the game, as the Otters collected seven offensive boards, the majority of them resulting in points.

They outrebounded the Lakers by a 26-23 margin, as Labat led DL with seven.

Contested shots were the norm for both teams, and it showed, as the Lakers shot 38.5 percent from the floor and the Otters 45.7.

That meant clutch shots were far and few between, which also made each one that much more important.

DL junior Kirk McLeod's three-point bucket at the 5:05 mark in the second half was as clutch as they come.

After finding himself wide open, Labat found McLeod planted behind the three-point arc with plenty of space to shoot.

The three was money and DL built the largest lead of the game by either team, 38-31.

"Sometimes being that open is hard, because you have so much time and you are thinking about it more," McLeod said of his trey. "My heart was just pumping and the adrenaline running."

The Otters kept the game within striking distance, with a pair of free throws by junior center Reece Johnson.

But McLeod came up big with another timely jumper, as senior guard Jake Anderson responded with a driving bucket to put the score at 40-36.

With the clock ticking down on Fergus Falls' season, they employed a full-court press, which promptly caused a Laker turnover after Labat was trapped at center court.

The turnover resulted in a Jackson McAllister putback as the Otters pulled to within two points, 40-38.

Labat redeemed himself by hitting two free throws on his bonus opportunity with 25 seconds left in regulation, thus putting DL back up by two possessions at 42-38.

Labat's focus and energy was put on his defensive game and guarding Otter leading scorer junior post Mike Millard, who finished with 17 points, but was held under his season average.

"I got into Brian's face before the game and told him he's our 'X' factor and he responded," Flint said.

The Laker senior's offensive game was shut down to only four points, but his defensive response was a big reason his team was able to move on to state.

"It was a good night defensively as a team for us," Labat said. "But you have to credit Fergus Falls' defense, too. This game proved that it's not all about your offense."

Fergus Falls didn't go away after Labat's two free throws, as sophomore Austin Rund sunk a trey to pull to within one at 42-41.

But DL's big-game experience kicked in, as the Otters fouled Mollberg, which gave him his opportunity he has been waiting for all his life.

He was money on both the front end of his 1-and-1, as well as his bonus free throw, thus forcing Fergus Falls into a desperation three.

It didn't happen, as the attempt was off the mark.

"I have been thinking about those two shots since about fifth grade," said Mollberg about his pair of late free throws. "It felt good getting it done."

Flint certainly appreciated the Laker all-time leading scorer's touch at the free throw line.

"He's a prime time player, I'm glad he's on my team," the DL coach commented.

The game started with another DL senior igniting his offensive game, as guard Rick Hutchinson bolted off to a quick start to set the tone for the Lakers with seven points midway through the first half.

The bench also came into play for the Lakers, after Labat was called for his fourth foul near the seven-minute mark.

Senior post Kyle Singer's number was called to fill-in and he did exactly what Flint asked of him, as the Otters scored just five points in Labat's absence.

"Kyle came in and did a great job for the time we asked of him," Flint said.

"Kyle has been working hard all year and he has put in his time, he deserved it tonight," Labat said.

As the buzzer sounded and the Nemzek Gym floor was hoarded by the Laker student body, another sound was apparent -- the snapping of a 94-year state drought.

"Ninety-four years, that's amazing," McLeod said. "It feels great, my legs were just shaking and I just ran into the fans. It feels real good."

For Mollberg, it's a feeling he has been imagining since he suited up as a Laker back in his elementary days.

"I've grown up with these guys thinking about it," Mollberg said. "It's a great moment."

Laker results

Section 8-3A championship at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Thursday, March 15: (2) Fergus Falls vs. (1) Detroit Lakes.

Otters 18 23 - 41

Lakers 22 22 - 44

Scoring (2-3-ftm-fta-pts) -- DL: Kirk McLeod 2-2-1-2-11; Joe Mollberg 2-2-3-4-13; Rick Hutchinson 2-1-1-2-8; Brian Labat 1-0-2-2-4; Derek Long 1-2-0-0-8. TEAM: 8-7-7-10-44.

FF: Jake Anderson 2-0-0-0-4; Mike Millard 7-0-3-4-17; Reece Johnson 2-0-1-1-5; Austin Rund 0-2-2-2-8; Zach Rengel 2-1-0-0-7. TEAM: 13-3-6-7-41.

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