Once Ayden McDonald rattled in a half-court buzzer-beater, then opened the second half with a driving, no-look layup, Hibbing had to be feeling mighty good about its prospects in Thursday night's Section 7AAA boys basketball final.
But the Bluejackets, who clawed out of an early mess to lead Princeton by four points after McDonald's acrobatic "kind of a jump hook or whatever you want to call that shot," according to his father and Hibbing coach, Joel McDonald, kept running into the same problem.
They never could come up with an answer for the Tigers' 6-foot-7 post, Jon Stimmler. The senior scored 15 points in the opening eight minutes, had 23 at halftime and finished with a game-high 34 as top-seeded Princeton held off No. 2 Hibbing 91-76 at Duluth East High School.
The Tigers (26-3) and Bluejackets (22-7) came in with two of the most potent offenses in Class AAA. Putting the ball in the basket, then, isn't an issue for Hibbing, which had its winning streak snapped at 16 games and fell short of its first state tournament since 1989.
"The concern for us was gonna be on the defensive end," said Coach McDonald, who was greeted after the award ceremony by family, including his father, Bob. "We tried to trap them, we tried to press - which is kind of our go-to thing - ran a little match-up zone, went to man, but ultimately the problem was always the same. It was Stimmler."
When the Bluejackets defeated Princeton 79-76 on Feb. 16, Tigers coach Brett Cloutier said Hibbing sophomore Parker Maki "completely outplayed" Stimmler, who "really responded" Thursday. Did he ever. He was unstoppable around the rim at times, either converting teammates' passes or cleaning up rebounds.
And while Stimmler settled for 11 points in the second half, that's primarily because the rest of the Tigers were busy drilling shots from the outside. Fellow senior Adam Williams knocked down four of Princeton's seven 3-pointers after the break.
Williams, the school's career leader in made 3s, managed only a pair of free throws over the opening 18 minutes, which was about as entertaining a half of high school basketball as you'll find. He ended the night with 18 points.
"He wasn't going to have two bad halves tonight," Cloutier said after the Tigers secured the program's first state-tournament berth since 1932, when Herbert Hoover was occupying the White House.
Ayden McDonald, a freshman, and senior Luke Lundell led Hibbing with 18 points apiece. McDonald's heave from just inside halfcourt bounced all over the rim before popping up high off the glass, then falling to give the Bluejackets a 41-39 advantage.
"We had the momentum going into the half after that, but they were hitting everything," the younger McDonald said.
Maki, an athletic 6-5 forward, turned in the play of the night when he got the ball on the wing and promptly exploded through traffic and right to the hoop, hammering home an emphatic dunk while being fouled. Maki's ensuing free throw missed, but Hibbing was within four, 76-72, with 4:35 remaining.
Princeton's Williams retaliated by trickling in his fourth 3 at the other end, and the Bluejackets never came any closer.
It fit the theme of the second half, when Hibbing kept the Tigers close, matching every one of their spurts, but the Bluejackets simply couldn't reel in the state's fifth-ranked team.
Still, they had nothing to hang their heads about. Hibbing reached its first section final since 2011, and while the Bluejackets couldn't follow the school's girls team down to the state tournament, they're on the upswing. Only two of the five starters Thursday were seniors - Lundell and Will Durie.
"Hopefully we set a good example for the future of this program," Lundell said.
Hibbing - Ayden McDonald 18, Will Durie 9, Parker Maki 15, Luke Lundell 18, Mayson Brown 11, Eli Erickson 2, Tre Holmes 3.
3-point goals - McDonald, Durie, Maki, Lundell 3, Brown, Holmes.
Princeton - Jon Stimmler 34, Tate Laabs 8, Reilly O'Neil 10, Calvin Peterson 12, Adam Williams 18, James Flicek 9.
3-point goals - Laabs 2, Peterson 4, Williams 4, Flicek.