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Prep boys basketball: Hermantown survives Section 7AAA thriller with Hibbing

Third-seeded Hawks move on to first state tournament since 2018.

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Hermantown boys basketball players celebrate with the Section 7AAA championship trophy after a 60-59 victory over Hibbing on Friday, March 18 at East High School in Duluth.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — As Hermantown and Hibbing broke from a timeout late in the Section 7AAA boys basketball championship game Friday, everyone in the crowd of about 1,000 at Duluth East stood in anticipation as Hibbing inbounded the ball and got it to superstar guard Ayden McDonald.

It was only 9.5 seconds, but Hermantown coach Andy Fenske said it felt like an eternity.

“All I could think was ‘go faster, go faster, go faster,’ waiting for that time to go,” Fenske said. “We got one stop there, but I think my heart about dropped out of my chest when I saw that ball rim out and go right to them.”

Fortunately for Fenske and company, Hibbing’s next two attempts came up empty, too, as third-seeded Hermantown survived for a thrilling 60-59 victory over the defending section champion Bluejackets as pandemonium erupted among the Hawks’ faithful.

Hermantown advances to its third state tournament, with the others being in 2018 and 2015. The Hawks (21-8) will play Tuesday in the Class AAA quarterfinals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis against an opponent to be determined once seedings are complete.

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“We knew this could be our last game of the season, so we just gave it our all,” said junior Blake Schmitz, who led Hermantown with 30 points. “I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life.”

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Michael Lau (3) and Blake Schmitz of Hermantown leap for a rebound with Ayden McDonald and Carson Brown (right) of Hibbing during the first half of the Section 7AAA boys basketball final on Friday, March 18, 2022.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Schmitz helped the Hawks offset a monster effort from McDonald, who scored 25 of his game-high 37 points in the second half as the senior tried in vain to will top-seeded Hibbing (19-8) to victory.

McDonald was hard on himself afterward but what a game as he displayed an array of moves, including turnaround jumpers, pullups, fadeaways, drives to the lane, no-look passes, behind the back dribbling and a couple long 3-pointers.

“Ayden came up to me afterward and told me how badly he wanted to win. I knew that. Everyone knows that. We all want that,” Hibbing coach Joel McDonald said. “The reality is that we lost everyone who played relevant minutes last year except him. So to get to this point is a credit to all the guys, and to the leader that Ayden is.”

Ayden McDonald’s final high school shot was an NBA range 3-pointer that bounced low off the backboard and rimmed in and out to the left of the rim.

The rebound went right to teammate Jacob Jensrud, whose baseline putback just missed. Another teammate, likely Dane Mammenga, tried to tip it in on the other side but just didn’t get high enough to adequately direct it and the final horn sounded. Game, and in this case, prep career over. Ayden McDonald, an Augustana (S.D.) University recruit, leaves Hibbing as the Bluejackets’ all-time leader in points, assists and steals. He averaged just under 29 points per game this season.

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Hermantown's Michael Lau and Hibbing's Ayden McDonald have a word after the final buzzer of the Section 7AAA boys basketball final on Friday, March 18, 2022 at East High School in Duluth.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

“We got the ball in Ayden’s hands, which I was good with,” Joel McDonald said. “His shot was a very difficult shot, but it had a chance before it spun back out, and then we had two opportunities to put it in at the end and it didn’t happen. When you have three opportunities like that in the last 10 seconds and none of them fall for you it’s just not your night unfortunately. Give credit to Hermantown. Andy’s guys played tough. It was a dogfight.”

Hibbing was trying for back-to-back state tournaments for the first time since somebody by the name of Kevin McHale led the Bluejackets in 1975 and 1976, finishing as Class AA runnerup in '76 as McHale was named Minnesota Mr. Basketball.

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Instead, it’s Hermantown advancing.

“With the way we’ve been playing this year, it’s hard to believe we’ve only scored 119 points in the last two games and came away with two wins,” Fenske said. “It just shows the craziness of March. We had to go out and get some big stops, and these boys did it. Our mantra has been ‘refuse to lose,’ and they’ve really embraced that mentality. When the shots aren’t falling, you’ve got to step up the defense, and I think you really saw that here.”

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Hermantown's Blake Schmitz attacks the basket in the second half of the Section 7AAA boys basketball championship game on Friday, March 18, 2022 at East High School in Duluth as Dane Mammenga (5) defends for Hibbing.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

After all the craziness of the closing seconds, including missed three throws, Michael Lau’s steal and layup stood as the game-winning basket with just over a minute remaining.

Hibbing had the ball on its end, but the Bluejackets’ inbounds pass near the 3-point line was a little short. Both Lau and McDonald went up high for it and the ball got tipped the other way. McDonald fell but Lau kept his footing and knew what to do next. He retrieved the ball and outraced a defender to the basket.

“That was clutch,” Schmitz said. “(Lau) is the heart of our team. He plays with passion and does the things people don’t always notice, the defense and rebounding.”

And here’s another thing about Lau — he’s the Hawks’ only senior — meaning the best could be yet to come for the Hermantown program.

For him, though, this is it.

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Hermantown players celebrate after the final buzzer of the Section 7AAA final on Friday, March 18, 2022 at East High School in Duluth. The Hawks defeated Hibbing 60-59.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

“I saw the ball up in the air so I just went and got it,” Lau said. “I knew it was coming. They had been doing that all game. I knew it was coming to (McDonald). We all did. We scouted all week for him.

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“I love these guys. We’ve worked all summer for this. This was the end goal right here.”

Hermantown 26-34—60

Hibbing 22-37—59

Hermantown — Blake Schmitz 30, Abe Soumis 5, Michael Lau 7, Keaton Christianson 13, Andrew Schmitz 5. Totals 24 5-8 60.

3-point goals — Schmitz 3, Soumis, Christianson 3.

Hibbing — Zach Rusich 7, Carson Brown 2, Alex Chacich 13, Ayden McDonald 37. Totals 24 8-12 59.

3-point goals — Rusich, McDonald 2.

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Hermantown's Abe Soumis wrestles with Alex Chacich (back) and Ayden McDonald of Hibbing for the ball late in the second half of the Section 7AAA boys basketball championship game on Friday, March 18, 2022 at East High School in Duluth. Officials ruled a timeout had been called before a whistle for a jump ball.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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