BRAINERD -- Following more than three decades of wandering, the Bemidji High School boys basketball team is destined for the promised land.
After a wait of Biblical proportions, 36 minutes was all it took for BHS to earn a 67-58 victory over Sartell-St. Stephen and win the Section 8-3A championship Friday night in Brainerd.
“We’re proud to get this for all the past and present Lumberjacks,” Bemidji head coach Travis Peterson said. “It’s for everybody involved. It’s been a long time coming.”
A wire-to-wire lead allowed BHS to walk out with its 30th section championship in program history and its first since 1985.
“It’s exciting for our community, it’s exciting for everyone here,” junior Silas Hess said. “I think that’s the most important thing: We did it for this community. We did it for each other, ultimately, as well. We’re just excited.”
The difference on the scoreboard came at the start, as the top-seeded Jacks (23-4) roared out to a 9-0 lead that they never relinquished.
“Jumping out to that lead really helped because it gave the guys confidence and got the jitters out right away,” Peterson said. “Really, that was the difference in the game.”
The second-seeded Sabres (20-9) inched closer from then on. Though the nine-point difference held on a transition dunk for Spencer Konecne, Sartell-St. Stephen drew within one at 23-22 on an Alex Virnig tip in. But Bemidji scored the next four through a Hess coast-to-coast layup and a Konecne inside bucket en route to a 31-26 halftime edge.
“It was really important to always have our defense and always be driving (offensively),” Konecne said. “Everyone was sharing the ball, and everyone was playing good defense.”
BHS stretched its lead to 10 when Ben Hess converted a Silas Hess dish into an open layup for a 40-30 advantage.
Nevertheless, in no-quit fashion, the Sabres came back within a possession at 48-45 with five minutes to go.
“There were plenty of times where I thought we had it for a while, and then they started coming back,” Konecne said. “They didn’t give up. They kept going.”
But the Lumberjacks always had the answer.
Quincy Wilson knocked down a corner 3-pointer and then found Silas Hess for a layup to restore a 10-point lead with 3 minutes, 36 seconds remaining. Sartell-St. Stephen never cut back closer than seven, and the party was on in Bemidji’s drought-ending victory.
“We talked focus the whole entire week coming in,” Silas Hess said. “We knew that we had to stay focused on the scout. We were constantly telling our guys to stay focused and stay focused on what needs to happen. … That’s the most important thing. Our defense was outstanding tonight.”
Konecne finished with a team-high 14 points and nine rebounds, while Wilson added 13 points. Ben Hess and Silas Hess chipped in nine points apiece, as well, with the former racking up four steals. Kade Peterson had five assists, as well.
“We outworked them,” coach Peterson said. “Defense is where it started. Again. We turned them over a few times, but really, we protected the basket.”
Thomas Gieske had 16 to lead the Sabres, while Matt Sieben mixed in 15.
With the win, this year’s Lumberjacks team will return to a stage that has been a generation in the making. State seedings will be announced Saturday morning, and Bemidji will tip off from Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Wednesday, March 20, in the Class 3A state quarterfinals.
“We have so many Lumberjack fans who have lived through a long period of not getting down to Williams Arena or Target Center,” coach Peterson said. “So this is for everybody.”
No. 1 Bemidji 67, No. 2 Sartell-St. Stephen 58
SSS 26 32 -- 58
BHS 31 36 -- 67
SARTELL-ST. STEPHEN (20-9) -- Gieske 16, Sieben 15, Tillotson 7, Virnig 9, Schelonka 3, Bjelland 2, Hagy 2, Stalboerger 2, Weno 2.
BEMIDJI (23-4) -- Konecne 14, Wilson 13, B. Hess 9, S. Hess 9, Burley 8, Jensen 7, Peterson 5, Beberg 2.