THIEF RIVER FALLS-The first thing the Cass Lake-Bena boys basketball team did after winning the Minnesota Class 1A, Section 8 boys basketball championship on Friday was, understandably, celebrate. But the second thing the Panthers did will likely last much longer in their memories.
Five hundred and one days after Cass Lake teen and CL-B basketball member Jeremy Jourdain went missing, his teammates held up Jourdain's No. 44 jersey to the Cass Lake-Bena fans immediately following the final buzzer.
"That was one of their closest friends... He inspires them to do the best they can for him," CL-B head coach John Wind said. "I think all teams go through things. We've had our share. The boys have stayed focused and used that as inspiration to go where we're going right now."
The Panthers are now destined for Williams Arena in Minneapolis, having clinched their first section title since 2010 with a 66-53 victory against Ada-Borup at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
"He was a big part of our team," Cass Lake-Bena senior Raul Washington said of the still-missing Jourdain, who would have been a senior on this year's team but was last seen on Oct. 31, 2016, in Bemidji, Minn. "To see that, it was hard. But (we) just have to stick together.
"(Winning the section championship) is amazing. All of this is a great feeling. I know he's somewhere out there, and we're making him proud."
CL-B (29-1) roared out to a 28-12 lead after Washington finished with the left in the lane to cap a 9-0 run. But it wasn't just the offense that had them in control.
Through deflections and a disruptive defense, the Panthers held the Cougars (23-5) to 12 points in the first 14 minutes.
"You have to give (their offense) some credit, but I also think you have to give their defense some credit," A-B head coach Trevor Stewart said. "They're very quick on the defensive end and got their hands on a lot of balls, and they (energized) that way, too."
Ada-Borup cut the deficit to 11 on a pair of late free throws from Miguel Garcia III, but Miguel Reyes responded with a corner 3-pointer to send Cass Lake-Bena into halftime ahead 37-23.
"It was the defense. We just focused on defense all year," Wind said of the difference in the first half. "That's what paid off. I believe most of our games, we tired other teams out because we just kept pushing it and pushing it ... I think it just took a toll. And I believe that happened tonight, too."
CL-B built a 50-31 lead early in the second half when Jarell Jacobs sunk two free throws, but the Cougars started creeping closer. A-B quietly worked back within a dozen, 54-42, when Colby Stevenson put in a fast-break layup. But Washington quickly shut it down soon after.
With six straight points within 57 seconds, Washington regained the 19-point advantage and helped punch Cass Lake-Bena's ticket to state.
"It's crazy. Eight years since we've last been," Washington said. "This group of guys, we've been dreaming about it since we were little. It feels good to finally win it."
Half: CLB 37, AB 23
CLB: Delopaz 11, Mig. Reyes 6, E. Brown 6, Jacobs 14, Mike Reyes 3, Washington 17, A. Brown 7, Mitchell 2.
AB: Stevenson 4, Brainard 5, C. Thompson 6, Stewart 11, Garcia 12, Visser 2, Miller 13.