DULUTH – As Hermantown and Hibbing broke a timeout at the end of the Section 7AAA men’s basketball championship game on Friday, everyone in the crowd of about 1,000 in Duluth East was impatient as Hibbing entered the ball and passed it to superstar goalkeeper Ayden McDonald.
It was just 9.5 seconds, but Hermantown coach Andy Fenske said it felt like an eternity.
“All I could think of was ‘go faster, go faster, go faster’, waiting for that time to pass,” Fenske said. “We had a stoppage there, but I think my heart sank out of my chest when I saw that ball come out and go straight for them.”
Luckily for Fenske and company, Hibbing’s next two attempts also ended in failure, as third-seeded Hermantown survived for a thrilling 60-59 win over the defending Bluejackets Section champion as pandemonium has broken out among the Hawks faithful.
Hermantown advances to its third state tournament, the others being in 2018 and 2015. The Hawks (21-8) will play in the Class AAA quarterfinals on Tuesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis against an opponent TBD once seedings completed.
“We knew it might be our last game of the season, so we gave it our all,” said junior Blake Schmitz, who led Hermantown with 30 points. “I’ve dreamed of it all my life.”
Schmitz helped the Hawks offset a monster effort from McDonald, who scored a game-high 25 of 37 points as the senior tried unsuccessfully to lead the top-seeded Hibbing (19-8) to the Victoire.
McDonald was tough on himself afterwards, but what a game as he displayed a range of moves including flip jumps, pull-ups, fades, lane runs, no-look passes, dribbling behind the back and some long 3-pointers.
“Ayden came to me afterwards and told me how much he wanted to win. I knew that. Everyone knows that. We all want that,” Hibbing coach Joel McDonald said. reality is that we lost everyone who played relevant minutes last year except him. So to get to this point is an honor for all the guys and for the leader that is Ayden.
Ayden McDonald’s last high school shot was an NBA 3-pointer that bounced low off the backboard and dug in left of the rim.
The rebound went straight to teammate Jacob Jensrud, whose base kickback narrowly missed. Another teammate, probably Dane Mammenga, tried to swing him to the other side but just wasn’t high enough to direct him properly and the final horn sounded. Game, and in this case, career preparation complete. Augustana University (SD) rookie Ayden McDonald leaves Hibbing as the Bluejackets’ all-time leader in points, assists and steals. He’s averaged just under 29 points per game this season.
“We had the ball in Ayden’s hands, which I was good at,” said Joel McDonald. “His shot was a very difficult shot but he had a chance before he came back and then we had two chances to put him in the end and it didn’t happen. When you have three chances like that in the Last 10 seconds and none of them get to you, sadly not your night. Give Hermantown credit. Andy’s guys played hard. It was a dogfight.
Hibbing was trying to make back-to-back state tournaments for the first time since someone named Kevin McHale coached the Bluejackets in 1975 and 1976, finishing second in Class AA in 1976 as McHale was named Minnesota Mr. Basketball.
Instead, it’s Hermantown moving forward.
“With the way we’ve played this year, it’s hard to believe we only scored 119 points in the last two games and came away with two wins,” Fenske said. “It just shows the madness of March. We had to go out and make some big saves, and these boys did it. Our mantra was ‘refuse to lose’, and they really embraced that mentality. When the shots don’t fall, you need to build up the defense, and I think you really saw that here.
After all the madness of the final seconds, including three missed shots, Michael Lau’s steal and layup was the winning basket with just over a minute to go.
Hibbing had the ball on his end, but the Bluejackets inside pass near the 3-point line was a bit short. Lau and McDonald went high for it and the ball was knocked the other way. McDonald fell but Lau kept his balance and knew what to do next. He recovered the ball and moved ahead of a defender to the basket.
“It was the clutch,” Schmitz said. “(Lau) is the heart of our team. He plays with passion and does things that people don’t always notice, defense and rebounds.
And here’s another thing about Lau — he’s the Hawks’ only senior — which means the best could be yet to come for the Hermantown program.
For him, however, that’s it.
“I saw the ball in the air, so I just went for it,” Lau said. “I knew it was coming. They had been doing it all game. I knew it was coming (McDonald). We all did it. We looked for it all week.
“I love these guys. We worked all summer for this. That was the end goal here.