Coming off the bench, Aven Augustson made two consecutive three-pointers to cut a nine-point deficit to three, at 21-24, with 4:17 remaining in the first half of the Gators’ state semifinal game versus the Hayfield Vikings.
A Zac Blawat board and layup drew the Gators to within three again, at 23-26, with 3:38 left before halftime. The Gators would draw no closer.
The offensive duo of Ethan Slaathaug, who scored 34 points, and Isaac Matti, who scored 22 points, proved to be too much for the Gators. The Gators fell 79-53 at the Target Center in Minneapolis to see its run come to an end in the Minnesota Class A State Boys Basketball Tournament semifinals on April 7.
“We threw a lot of bodies at him (Slaathaug). And he just really kind of tore us apart. He’s a tough player; hats off to him,” Gator Head Coach Kent Christian said. “And then (with) number 11 (Matti), they kind of isolate those two (players). They do a good job of putting their players in good positions to score.”
For the game, the Vikings shot 53 percent from the floor, including nearly 62 percent in the second half.
The Vikings found success from three-point range, especially in the second half. For the game, the Vikings finished 43.5 percent from three-point range (10 of 23), but 60 percent (6 of 10) in the second half.
“Every time we were making a little run, they would answer,” Gator senior Adam Benke said. “… They have really crisp ball movement and they’re a pretty good team.”
With the Gators trailing 23-32 late in the first half, Aven Augustson hit his third three-pointer of the game to draw the Gators to within six, at 26-32. Hayfield answered with six consecutive points to end the half, capped by Easton Fritcher fast break layup off a steal with 43 seconds left in the half.
Speaking of turnovers, in the first half, the Vikings scored 19 points off 14 Gator turnovers.
Trailing 26-38 at halftime, the Gators scored the second half’s first four points on an Aaron Westling layup and a Kobey Dallager layup to draw to within eight, at 30-38. Later, a Dallager layup cut the Gator deficit back to single digits, at 36-45 with exactly 14 minutes left in the game, but that’s the closest the Gators would get the rest of the way.
The Vikings then went on a 13-0 run to put the Gators in a 36-58 deficit with 11:10 remaining, helping to seal the team’s fate.
Offensively, the Gators shot 37 percent from the floor. Dallager led the Gators with 14 points, followed by Benke with 13, Westling with 12, and Augustson with 9.
Besides Slaathaug and Matti, Ethan Pack also reached double figures with 11 points and Fritcher posted a game-high 15 rebounds for the Vikings.
Despite the way the journey may have ended, Coach Christian appreciated his players’ effort and what they gave to their communities this season.
“(I’m) proud of them. It’s been a really tough year for a lot of people,” Coach Christian said. “And I thought these guys, especially for our communities, gave something for people to look forward to just by the way they played and the way they played together.”
After this loss, Benke’s message to his younger teammates was to keep working, but he also highlighted what this year’s group accomplished. The team finished 20-4, clinched the program’s second section title and first in 14 years, and won the program’s first state tournament game. No team in program history made it further than this one.
“We accomplished a lot this season,” Benke said. “And we did a lot of things that people didn’t think we could do. And we showed Gator Nation was it’s like.”
This loss brings the official end of five Gator senior players’ careers, including Benke, Westling, Kasen Swenson, Conner Wojchowski, and Noah Warne. The team also loses senior manager Alexis Rud.
Reaching the 1,000-point milestone and helping his team capture a section title and state semifinal finish in his final season, Benke was asked what it has meant to him to be a Gator.
“This has been awesome. I can’t imagine it being with any other team,” Benke said. “Even just the coaches, players, staff, everybody’s so supportive and it’s great to be a Gator. I’ll always be a Gator.”
To see the complete story, read the April 14 issue of The Tribune in print or online.