Grand Rapids rides its star to state

Any question whether a hand injury would hamper Alex Illikainen was answered before Friday night's opening tip when he fist-bumped each member of the officiating crew with his broken left hand.

Grand Rapids hoops
Grand Rapids' Alex Illikainen throws down an emphatic dunk during the Section 7AAA championship game against Cloquet on Friday night at Duluth Denfeld High School. Grand Rapids defeated Cloquet to advance to next week's state tournament. (Clint Austin /

Any question whether a hand injury would hamper Alex Illikainen was answered before Friday night's opening tip when he fist-bumped each member of the officiating crew with his broken left hand.

Then the Grand Rapids sophomore center went out and scored 24 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead the Thunderhawks past Cloquet 64-58 in the Section 7AAA high school boys basketball championship game at Duluth Denfeld.

Yet the Thunderhawks might not have celebrated a sixth consecutive section title if not for the contributions of Illikainen's teammates. Senior Justin Gill scored 17 points and junior A.J. Watland added 15 as the duo combined to make 12 of 17 field-goal attempts and seven of nine free throws.

"With me being out, I feel like it helped the team play more aggressively," said the 6-foot-9 Illikainen, who broke the metacarpal bone in his left hand during a Feb. 18 practice and missed five games. "Each guy had to attack the basket and (try to) score. It took a little bit of time when we all got back together, but this game showed me that we're playing better than ever."

Gill scored 10 points in the first half as Grand Rapids (20-9) took a 17-point lead before Cloquet (19-10) closed the half on an 11-0 run. But Gill continued his scoring role to open the second half by hitting a runner and a 3-pointer to expand the lead to 37-26.


"He's been offensive-minded for us," Thunderhawks coach Dan Elhard said. "He's a nice shooter and is unselfish to a fault at times -- we keep urging him to shoot the basketball. And now he's starting to heed our advice."

As he was during Illikainen's absence, Watland also was productive by making four of five shots in the first half.

"A.J. did a good job when Al was out," Gill said, "and now that he's back we're getting back into a rhythm with him back in there. It made us better when he was out because we attacked the basket more."

Illikainen, who wore a brace but afterward said he was pain-free, was cleared to play the day before the playoffs began when doctors examined him at Tria in Bloomington, Minn. With him back in the lineup, Grand Rapids still struggled to win overtime games against North Branch and Chisago Lakes -- teams with a combined 15-38 record -- but he appeared back in peak condition Friday. He pushed his career rebound total over 1,000, keeping him on pace to become Minnesota's all-time leader.

"He moves so well and defends so well," Cloquet coach Steve Battaglia said. "He plays big and smart and is so quick he gets around (defenders). There's a reason why they've won six years in a row."

Illikainen's coast-to-coast dunk inside 6 minutes to play gave Grand Rapids a 54-39 lead, but the Lumberjacks kept battling. Nate Weets hit two 3-pointers and Jordan Diver came off the bench to score 11 to cut the deficit to 62-58.

"We spent all night digging out of trouble," Battaglia said. "When you spend 10 minutes digging out of a hole, it's hard to put the pressure on them. We scrapped like heck to make it a game. We could have easily rolled over and died twice, but these kids showed character busting their can to make it a ballgame."

Scoring issues appeared to cost Cloquet three points -- a Grand Rapids basket that was waved off in the first half was mysteriously allowed and a second-half 3-pointer was called a two-pointer.


"That leaves a salty taste in your mouth, but it's not like we played well enough to walk out of here and feel like we got robbed," Battaglia said.

The Thunderhawks nailed seven of their final eight free throws to seal the victory and clinch a berth in the Class AAA quarterfinals Wednesday at Williams Arena against an opponent to be determined this morning.

Cloquet: 24-34--58

Grand Rapids: 30-34--64

Cloquet -- Aaron Johnson 9, Adam Laine 12, Maxx Brenner 3, Nate Weets 8, Dillon Johnson 12, Zach Gerlach 3, Jordan Diver 11. Totals 20-48 11-13 58.

3-point goals -- Weets 2, D. Johnson 2, Diver 2, Brenner.

Grand Rapids -- Alex Illikainen 24, A.J. Watland 15, Evan Reitter 6, Justin Gill 17, Trevor Elhard 2. Totals 22-47 19-25 64.

3-point goal -- Gill.


Att. -- 2,250.

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