The Gators had not yet led when the clock ticked under four minutes in its Class A State Boys Basketball Tournament quarterfinal game versus the Deer River Warriors. Then, Gator senior Kasen Swenson lined up a three-pointer from the corner and shot it. The ball went in the hoop, giving the Gators a 52-49 lead with 3:32 remaining.
The Gators would not squander this lead and, soon after this shot, the history of Gator Basketball would change. The Gators defeated the Warriors 58-52 in Pequot Lakes on April 1 to win the program’s first state tournament game and advance to the state semifinals for the first time in program history.
“It felt good. It was my first (outside) shot that went down. I just felt like it boosted everyone else’s confidence,” Swenson said about the three-point shot. “When you’re struggling and you make one, it just brings something within you that keeps you pushing and makes you go harder. And so we locked down on ‘D’ and it went from there.”
Leading the program for the past 18 years, Gator Head Coach Kent Christian said he was exhausted after his team’s historic victory and explained how his team won thanks to something that went beyond the x’s and o’s.
“I thought our guys really played with a lot of heart. Deer River, man, they’re a solid team, really, really athletic, gave us some fits,” Coach Christian said. “They went five around nobody and really tried to spread us out. And I thought our guys did okay with it, but we won that one with heart.”
The Gators trailed by as many as 10 points in that first half. A Ty Morrison three-pointer for the Warriors put the Gators in a 13-23 deficit with 7:50 remaining in the first half.
Then the Gators made a move with a 9-0 run. During this run, Adam Benke made a layup while getting fouled and made the ensuing free throw. Kobey Dallager capped the run with a layup, drawing the Gators to within one, at 22-23, with exactly six minutes left before halftime. The Gators trailed 29-35 at the break.
In the second half, the Gators limited the Warriors to 17 points. For the game, the Gators held the Warriors to 39 percent shooting. Asked about his team’s defense in the second half, Coach Christian again pointed to heart.
“We said coming into this that Deer River, they’ll shoot themselves into a game (and) shoot themselves out of the game. If they’re hitting, they’re going to be really tough,” Coach Christian said. “To start off, they were hitting. We clamped down on defense, but they were really good off the bounce. And I thought a few times we were slow on the help (defense), but all in all a good job.”
Senior Adam Benke talked about the mindset going into that second half.
“Our mindset (was) just play a better half. Our first half, we didn’t shoot the ball very well. We were kind of missing some bunnies underneath there,” Benke said. “And we just need to clean up our game, and that’s what we did in the second half.”
Offensively, the Gators shot 50 percent from the floor. Dallager led the team with 25 points, followed by Benke with 15 and Blawat with 11. Morrison led the Warriors with 23 points, followed by Mikhail Wakonabo with 21 points.
Advancing to the Class A State Boys Basketball Tournament semifinals, the Gators (20-3) will play the Section 1A Champion Hayfield Vikings (19-4) at noon on Wednesday, April 7 from the Target Center in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Benke and Swenson look forward to the opportunity to step onto that floor— one Coach Christian referred to as the “big gym” following his team’s section championship win.
Benke is “stoked” for the chance.
“That’s awesome… I want to say this day would never come, but it is,” Benke said. “It’s coming and I’m excited.”
It’s another dream come true in a season that delivered one earlier— a section championship.
“It’s amazing,” Swenson said about playing at Target Center. “It’s going to be a dream of mine. I love it.”
The Gators planned to do a shootaround on April 1, practice on April 2, take the weekend off for Easter holiday, and then return to practice that week to prepare for the semifinal game. Coach Christian is excited for his team’s opportunity to play at Target Center.
“Hey, I get to go shopping at Target, I told them,” Christian said. “I won’t show you the moves that I showed them in the locker room when I go shopping.”
With the win, the Gator program assured itself of a top four finish in the state for the first time. What does that accomplishment mean?
“It means we have a lot of good players,” Coach Christian said. “Gator Nation was outstanding tonight; what a crowd. And I’m just real proud for the guys.”
As the Gators head to the state semifinals, the message from Swenson to his teammates is to not be satisfied just yet.
“It’s open from here on out,” Swenson said. “Everyone’s beatable, and we just need to keep pushing and go hard. And I think we can do good things here.”
The Gators have reached a couple targets—a section championship and a visit to the Target Center— but look to keep reaching more targets while down in the Twin Cities, knowing they have the support behind them to do it.
“Just keep your head and keep your nerves under control,” Benke said. “We’re all here for you and Gator Nation is.”