MINNEAPOLIS -- Badger-Greenbush-Middle River wanted to go shopping at Target during this boys basketball season. Shopping at Target, for the Gators, meant playing on the big stage of the Target Center -- home to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota state high school basketball tournament.
The Gators earned that trip by winning a quarterfinal game last week in Pequot Lakes to qualify for an appearance at Target Center. B-G-MR, however, fell to Hayfield 79-53 on Wednesday in the semifinal round of the Minnesota state Class A boys basketball tournament at the Target Center.
The Gators had a hard time with Hayfield standout Ethan Slaathaug, who led the Vikings with 34 points.
The Section 8A champions had a tough time with turnovers out of the gate, as four within the first five minutes of the game led to a 13-5 Hayfield run. The Gators had 20 turnovers for the game.
"They jumped on us early," Gators head coach Kent Christian said. "(Ethan) Slaathaug pretty much took over the game. He's an outstanding player. He got to the rim on us a little too much and that was the name of the game. Hats off to (Hayfield). They just played better than us today."
Slaathaug was at the forefront of Hayfield’s first-half offense as he piled up 12 points, two assists and two steals during their opening surge. He added an exclamation point to the streak with an impressive fadeaway shot to push their lead to 18-9.
Still, B-G-MR was hanging around late in the first half as Hayfield shot 40% from the line and missed some key baskets. The Gators, who grabbed their first state tournament win against Deer River in the quarterfinals, could not make up for the Vikings’ aggressiveness and work on the offensive boards..
Searching for momentum, B-G-MR received a much-needed spark from sophomore Aven Augustson, who sank back-to-back 3-pointers under the five-minute mark and got the Gators to within three points.
Holding a 24-21 lead, Hayfield persisted and stretched its lead to 38-26 at the break. Slaathaug continued to throw a wrench in the Gators’ plans. By the end of the first half, he had 20 points, more than half of the team’s output.
For the Gators, Augustson’s nine points led the team at the break and senior guard Aaron Westling came off the bench with six points.
Westling and Kobey Dallager were the cornerstones of the B-G-MR’s offense to open the second half. The duo combined for 10 points in the first five minutes. However, Slaathaug picked up right where he left off. A 3-pointer and wide-open field goals helped him pick up 10 more points before the 10-minute mark of the second half.
"It was really interesting. I thought we came out at half and we really started pounding them inside and got a couple baskets, but they always had an answer for it," said Christian.
Sophomore guard Issac Matti also got in on the action for Hayfield in the second half. A couple of long-range field goals and second chance buckets gave him eight points during a 22-13 run that pushed the Vikings’ lead to 60-39.
B-G-MR battled a 20-point deficit throughout the remainder of the second half. Hayfield controlled possession and locked down the glass, outrebounding the Gators 13-3 in the latter half.
"I thought we had some good possessions and got some key baskets, but then we look up and we're still down by 11,” said Christian. “Then we have a couple key turnovers that result in threes for them and all of the sudden it's 16 or 17. Against Hayfield that's a lot to overcome.”
In addition, the Vikings shot even better in the second half, boosting their field goal percentage from 46.4% to 61.9%.
The final stat line saw Slaathaug finish with 34 points, four rebounds and four assists. For the Gators, Dallager finished with 14 points, Westling with 12 and senior Adam Benke picked up 13 points, six rebounds and two assists.
"Heck, we started to try and throw double teams at (Slaathaug) and he still was able to get by us and penetrate,” said Christian. “He's a real good passer too. We said going in we couldn't put him at the foul line, but we sure did.”
Hayfield, which improved to 20-4, moves on to the Class A final to play Hancock on Saturday.
Despite the disappointing result, the Gators, who closed out at 20-4, had a lot to be proud of when looking back on the year.
"It's huge," said Christian of the Gators’ season. "It's huge for our community. These kids have worked really hard for it. I'm very proud of them. Winning a state tournament game for the first time in school history for boys basketball is something pretty special."