FARGO — The Devils Lake girls basketball team interlocked arms and screamed in celebration after the buzzer sounded in the North Dakota Class A state semifinals. The Firebirds came back in the second half to defeat Fargo Davies 64-57, and didn’t yet know they wouldn’t be playing for a state championship the next day.
The North Dakota High School Activities Association released a statement during the second half of the game that all winter and spring sports and activities would be suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic, including the tournament.
For a brief moment, the Firebirds, the state runners-up a year ago, thought they would get another guaranteed shot at a state title.
“You play a game like that, you’re in the semis, you’re on TV and a big stage; you want a shot at a title tomorrow after the season we had, and then you get that message,” Devils Lake head coach Justin Klein said.
Going into Friday’s semifinal at Scheels Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, Klein was told to tell his seniors to play like it could be their last game, noting the high school tournament cancellations in surrounding states.
They listened. Senior guard Jes Mertens, who scored 14 points and scooped up seven rebounds, tied the game at 49-49 with 10 minutes to play after Devils Lake was down by six entering the second half. Fellow senior Abby Johnson, who led the Firebirds with 18 points, drove for a layup to bring Devils Lake ahead at 54-53 after Davies had held the lead for about 27 minutes.
“It came down to who was going to make a shot for us,” Klein said. “Johnson and Mertens stepped up really big. (Davies) hit a shot down the stretch, too, with 1 minute, 20 seconds left to get it within four, and (Johnson) stepped up and hit some free throws.”
Mertens found out the tournament had been suspended in a postgame interview.
“It feels good knowing that — obviously we can’t play tomorrow — but it’s good knowing that we ended it on a win,” Mertens said. “It would have been nice to take home a first-place trophy, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Klein learned about the potential end of his team’s season like most other players did, via an announcement over the public address system.
“I get it because all of the fans were there. The bad part is that it takes away from that game,” Klein said. “It takes away from what just happened and what the kids did.”
Though Devils Lake (25-1) and Davies (18-8) didn’t know Friday’s game was the foreseeable-future finale of the Class A basketball tournament, both teams played like it.
Down by eight, Ava Wild, who had a 10-point first half, dribbled around a Firebird and drove for a layup to put the Eagles out front for the first time at 9-8 during a 25-9 run that gave Davies an eventual 10-point lead (25-15).
Davies got help from 6-foot junior Taylor Fey in the first half, who tallied her 1,000th career point in the first eight minutes of the contest. Fey shot 8 of 13 (62%) from the Scheels Center floor and went 4-for-5 (80%) at the free-throw line for a game-high 20 points.
Klein wasn’t too happy with his team’s first-half play.
“Way too many transition baskets, they beat us at our own game, which is transition basketball,” he said. “We didn’t get back, we didn’t stop the ball, they penetrated on us too much.”
Devils Lake transitioned from zone defense to man-to-man in the second half, which paid off. That fed the other end of the court, as a 10-2 run in the final three minutes earned the Firebirds a semifinal win.
The Firebirds also seemed to be fueled by their fans in red, who filled almost three full sections at the SHAC.
Though Devils Lake won’t be vying for its first state title in over three decades Saturday against Fargo Shanley, there’s still a possibility the teams could continue. It’ll come down to logistics, NDHSAA Executive Director Matt Fetsch said, and depend on what happens with the outbreak.
If the Firebirds would've known about the tournament suspension before the final buzzer, Mertens said they might've come out a little stronger.
"But we found our groove halfway through and we pushed through knowing," Mertens said. "Our coach said this could be our last game, so we talked about that in the locker room. And that’s what gave us our push.”
DL: Johnson 18, Mertens 14, Martinson 12, Brown 8, Krogfoss 7, Barendt 4, Gourd 1.
FD: Fey 20, Wild 12, Koenig 11, Wacha 10, Safranski 3, Simle-Askew 1.
Half: FD 37, DL 31.