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John’s Journal: It Was A ‘Where Were You When’ Game In Class A

After Three Overtimes, Fertile-Beltrami Holds Off West Central Area In State Semifinals

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2024 - 6:49 PM


Where were you when West Central Area High School senior Mitchell Dewey banked in a three-point shot at the buzzer to force overtime in the Class A boys basketball state semifinals on Friday afternoon.? Or when Fertile-Beltrami senior Mason Nowacki scored a late three to take the game to a second overtime? Or when Caleb Stoltman, junior from Fertile-Beltrami, made three free throws down the stretch in the THIRD overtime to secure the Falcons’ 84-75 win and lock up a spot in the state championship game?

Where were you? Anybody who was inside Williams Arena will never forget it.

“I've done this for 31 years and it might be one of the best state tournament games I've seen,” said a relieved Fertile-Beltrami coach Neil Steffes.

“It’s probably going to go down as one of the better games in the state tournament,” said 28-year West Central coach Kraig Hunter.

There’s no “might” and there’s no “probably.” This was one of those epic ballgames that will be mentioned any time future discussions focus on the best games. Period. The screeching crowd, the hustling athletes, the pressure of playing on TV inside The Barn. C’mon. This was 2 hours, 24 minutes of pure unadulterated competition.

The Falcons, playing at state for the first time since before the current players were born – 2001, to be exact – came in as the No. 3 seed, meaning their matchup with the second-seeded Knights was how you draw it up. And West Central had never been to state, ever, adding to the newness and the pressure and the excitement.

Dewey’s big bomb at the end of regulation was one of those wild mailings that has a prayer stamped on the envelope.

“It was definitely tough,” said Nowacki, who scored 12 points as one of five Falcons in double figures. “We were up three with three seconds left in regulation, and then that kid banks a college three-pointer? It’s kind of like, wow, he really hit that and then we knew that we had four more minutes. So we just had to dig in.”

The digging in had started before that, when Fertile-Beltrami’s Caiden Swenby (19 points) fouled out with three minutes to play in regulation.

“We knew we didn't have Caiden and that was a big loss for us, but we had guys step up,” Nowacki said.

The score was 51-51 after two halves, 60-60 after one OT and 67-67 after the second OT. Fertile-Beltrami won the third overtime 17-8.

The noise level was about as big a factor as the players’ exhaustion level.

The Falcons’ Preston Hanson, who matched WCA’s Ben Bye with a game-high 23 points, said, “You can’t hear a thing out there.” Teammate Derek Sorenson (13 points) added, “Coach was talking to us and we couldn’t hear a thing he said.”

Dewey was asked about staying focused and sharp in such a lengthy endeavor.

“Sometimes when they're setting up, it's like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm so tired,’ ” he said. “But (after Saturday) it's all done for me so I’m giving it everything I have.”

Speaking of Saturday, Fertile-Beltrami’s reward for winning is a match with top-seeded Cherry for all the marbles. That game is scheduled for 11 a.m. at Williams Arena, which will come quick for a 27-6 Falcons team that walked off that same court at around 4:30 Friday.

Cherry (30-2), who defeated Nevis 76-58 in Friday’s first Class A semifinal, defeated Fertile-Beltrami 99-76 on Feb. 24.

Asked about the challenge, Steffes said, “We have to get to bed early. We’ve played Cherry already so we know what they're like and it's a tough task. I mean, you've got a Division I player (future Gopher Isaac Asuma) at the Class A level and it's a tall task for anybody. They get up and down the floor like racehorses and we'll just have to make sure we get back. We'll go out there and work hard and try our best. It’s a tough task but hopefully we can go out and compete.

“I know these guys are going to be exhausted and it's going to be a tough task, but I know my guys and they're going to go out and they're going to work hard and they're going to give me everything they’ve got. We're in the finals, and that's where you want to be at the end of the year.”

That motion was seconded by Sorenson, who said, “We’ve worked for this our whole lives. This is where we want to be.”

Cherry Has Been ‘Rolling For A While’

After the win over Nevis, a question was posed to Cherry coach Jordan Christianson: Are you rolling like you want to be rolling in these last two games (at state)?

“Yeah, we are. We've been rolling for a while. And you know these guys just keep getting better every day, they keep working in practice every day. That's what happens when you work as hard as these guys do.”

One factor that is new for most teams in the state semifinals and championship games are TV timeouts. They may be important to the Fertile-Beltrami Falcons on Saturday, and Christianson said he believes they are good for the hurry-up Tigers, too.

“Me and my assistant coach, Jaylon Holmes, were talking about that before the game, like, ‘Does this help us or does it hurt us?’ With the pros and cons of it, the pros are we try to gas our opponent out as best as we possibly can. But the positive thing is these guys are able to get rested a little bit and get refueled and then keep playing at that high pace. So after going through it today, I think I like it and I think these guys appreciate a break every once in a while.”

All eyes – especially those of Gophers fans – will be on Asuma during Saturday’s game. He burst onto the scene as a sophomore when the Tigers made it to state and was superb a year ago at the tournament, but Cherry is still seeking its first state title. Isaac was asked about the differences between 2022 and 2024.

“The first time we walked on the court we were like starstruck,” he said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is the Gophers court.’ I didn't have any offers and I wasn’t committed anywhere. So it was a really cool experience and I was thinking that hopefully someday I can get to this level. And then here I am now, coming to this school. It's just a blessing to play out there on the court.”

As for his future, he said he’s trying to stick with the present.

“I want to get the state championship. It’s been a goal of mine ever since I started playing varsity basketball. So that's what I've been focused on. I'm really excited for next year, but that's what my main goal is at the moment.”

Nevis coach Scott Kramer said of Cherry, “It’s their tournament to win or lose for a reason and you saw that today. We came out and played some good defense, but we made too many mistakes and they make you pay.”

Tournament Tidbits

--Nevis was the state champion of nine-player football last fall, and Kramer said all but four of five of the 17 players on the basketball roster also play football.

--Hats off to Roy Ward, 86, who is working at the consolation games this weekend at Concordia University in St. Paul. This is Roy’s 75th state tournament as a fan, official, administrator or table worker.

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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Boys Basketball State Tournament 2024: Consolation finals