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Prep girls basketball: Hermantown faces tall task in Class AAA quarterfinals

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Hermantown's Bryton Kukowski (25) passes the ball mid fall in the first half of the Section 7AAA girls final against Hibbing Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Denfeld High School. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Hermantown’s 2018-19 girls basketball season was one longtime coach Beth Clark could have wrapped up in zip-ties, sealed in duct tape and weighed down with lead before sending it plummeting to the bottom of Lake Superior.

The Hawks went 11-16 and bowed out in the first round of the Section 7AAA playoffs, ending Clark’s 31st season at the helm with a thud.

Hampered by injuries, the Hawks were 0-9 in games decided by 10 points or less.

This time, buoyed by a healthy group and plenty of senior leadership, Hermantown (26-3) won Section 7AAA and will face top-seeded DeLaSalle (24-4) in a Class AAA state tournament quarterfinal at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis.

“We learned how to win those close games, and that’s the difference between last year and this year,” Clark said Tuesday.

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Hermantown is 8-3 in close games this season, including three victories over section runner-up Hibbing by a combined five points.

“We used last year as motivation,” senior guard Bryton Kukowski said. “Yeah it happened, but we came (into the season) saying we were going to change it.”

Senior point guard Brita Birkeland said a lot of hard work in the offseason led to success this season.

“After how our season ended last year, we wanted to make it to the Barn and make it to state,” Birkeland said Tuesday as players packed up the bus before heading to Minneapolis. “Now, as we are leaving to go, it’s a dream that’s become a reality.”

In order to get to Williams Arena — known as the Barn — where the semifinals will be played, the Hawks need to beat the No. 1-ranked Islanders, who have won their last 16 games. Only one of those games, a 62-57 Section 4AAA semifinal win over Totino-Grace, was by fewer than 14 points.

“Isn’t that the old saying, ‘If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best?’ ” Clark said. “It’s a tall order but, at the same time, as long as our kids can go in there with no fear, compete and play hard, you just never know what can happen. You can catch a team on a bad night or they take some bad shots and we get some easy buckets, you just never know.”

Birkeland echoed her coach.

“To be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s one of the quotes on our bus,” said Birkeland, who finished second in the Northland with 7.1 assists per game. “We’re always up for a challenge. They play tight defense so we have to be strong off the dribble and strong with the ball. And we have to play the best defense we’ve ever played.”

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DeLaSalle averages 73 points per game, many coming off a pressure defense that forces a lot of turnovers.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” Kukowski said. “They apply a lot of ball pressure, but if we can break that and play our game we can do well.

“We are going to play like it’s any other game and play hard and play like we know we can.”

Hermantown winter sports fans are making their share of trips down I-35 to the Twin Cities. The boys hockey team finished as runners-up in last week’s Class A state tournament, while the boys basketball team plays for a spot in the Class AAA tournament Thursday night.

“It’s cool to see all the teams at Hermantown do really well,” Kukowski said. “We’re just hoping to make a run.”

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From left: Hermantown's Bryton Kukowski (25), Ava Asgaard (3), Brita Birkeland (11) Elly Schmitz (31) react as the clock runs out in the second half of the Section 7AAA girls final against Hibbing Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Denfeld High School. Hermantown defeated Hibbing 45-43. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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