DENEGA: Minot High traded its target for another banner

Minot High’s boys basketball team carried a large target placed on its back prior to the start of the 2015-2016 season.

After winning the state championship in 2015 – the Magicians’ first since 1999 – everyone was gunning to dethrone Minot.

And while the Magicians hit a couple speed bumps – two losses to top-ranked Century – they wore their target well, and eventually traded it for another banner Saturday night.

“We knew we were going to get everybody’s best shot, and West Fargo proved it,” Minot senior forward Jesse Roberts said. “We knew after they beat those first two teams – Century and Fargo Davies – that we were going to get the absolute best and nothing else.”

Entering Saturday’s title game against the Packers, the Magicians had won their previous two tournament games by an average of 19 points.

But something that happened in those first two games happened yet again against West Fargo.

The Magi fell behind.

“Throughout the entire season I don’t think we trailed much – except for the Century games – and the fact that all three games we were down, it shows how much of a team we are,” Minot senior guard Ben Bolinske said.

Against Devils Lake, Minot trailed by one, and found itself tied with the upstart Firebirds three additional times in the opening stanza.

Against Red River in the semifinals, the Magicians trailed by as many as eight points in the first half.

Minot’s deficits continued to progress with the weekend. Against the Packers, Minot trailed by 11 (30-19) late in the opening frame.

But was there ever any panic?

“Not at all,” Minot senior center Braydon Lund said. “We trust each other. You could see it everyone’s eyes. We knew we weren’t going to let each other down.”

But unlike their first two tournament games – where Minot eventually went on a substantial momentum-shifting run – the Packers never buckled, and continually had answers to the Magicians’ punches.

After Minot took its first lead of the second half – at 36-35 with 14:25 to play – the game closed with eight lead changed and five ties.

One of those lead changes saw the Packers stake a four-point lead (55-51) with 1:10 remaining, when things began to look quite bleak for the

defending state champions.

That’s when Bolinske stepped up.

Bolinske took the ball hard to the rack and was fouled on back-to-back possessions, positioning the senior – who’s played in two Dakota Bowls and two state title games in basketball – on the charity stripe with a chance to knot things up at 55 apiece.

“I’d put my life on him making those shots, to be honest,” Roberts said. “He’s such a clutch shooter. Its just another shot for him.”

And Bolinske ordered up some ice water.

“You just have to take it one free throw at a time,” Bolinske said. “You have to go up there like any other game. I was pretty fortunate to make all four. It makes me look pretty good, I guess.”

Bolinske freebies forced an extra four minutes.

Then – as has been the case for the Magi all season – another hero stepped up.

It could have been anyone.

One night it might have been senior guard KyJuan Johnson going off for 20 points. The next night, it’d be Lund pulling down 20 boards alongside a 15-point night.

But on Saturday, it was Roberts.

With a team-high 17 points – including eight in the first half to keep Minot close – Roberts rose up for the biggest 3-pointer of his life after 76 seconds of overtime.

“It felt perfect,” he said. “That’s probably the best shot I’ve ever felt. I saw (the West Fargo defender) bite, and then I jabbed, and I knew he wasn’t going to recover. So I stepped back and let it go.”

With 2:44 on the clock, it went all the way down to give the Magicians a 61-59 lead.

The Packers never recovered from there, as they were held without a point the rest of the way.

And the Magicians walked away with a 65-59 win.

“It was great,” junior wing Justin Engg said. “(Roberts) added to the fire and that got all of us going, and that gave us so much momentum.”

Saturday’s win marked just the third time the Magicians have won back-to-back state titles, and the first time since 1949-50.

“It’s a great feeling,” Engg said. “Many people never win a state championship, and we are lucky to win it twice. It’s a surreal feeling. I wish everybody could feel this way.”

Saying goodbye to decorated senior class

Bolinske – the face of Minot High athletics for the past three years – takes his ice-water blood to the gridiron next year for the up-and-coming Fighting Hawks of UND.

Roberts – with his eclectic mix of sports (soccer, basketball and baseball) – played his final game in the maroon and gold on Saturday, and saved a few of the best shots of his career for the occasion.

Cody Reynolds – who throws darts on the golf course – retires his sharp-shooting abilities for his golf bag, as he hits the links for the Fighting Hawks next year.

The ever-gritty Seth Peterson – who was very active on Saturday, getting rebounds, creating turnovers and taking a big charge in the first half – will also say goodbye to Magic City Campus this spring.

DiAndre Booker – who struggled in the championship game, but played well down the home stretch of his senior season – departs with more than one highlight-reel dunk in the rear view mirror.

And Braydon Lund.

The “undersized” center – who grabbed an average of 15.3 rebounds per game at the state tournament – takes his strength and power to the gridiron as a member of North Dakota State’s five-time national champion football team next season.

“I’m going to remember this team,” Lund said. “The games are fun, but in those locker rooms, those are my brothers. I consider them my family. I’ll remember them when I’m 80, 90 and on my deathbed. They stuck by my side and they fought for me, and we fought for each other.”

The outlook

Minot returns two of five starters to next year’s team.

Junior guard KyJuan Johnson and Engg will attempt to guide the first Magicians to their first ever three-peat.

It won’t be easy.

If Minot thought its target was heavy this year, it’ll be even bigger next season.

A player like sophomore guard Chandler Albertson – who played critical minutes in Thursday’s state quarterfinal game – will most likely step into a starting role, inheriting greater responsibilities in the process.

The rest remains to be seen.

“We just have to keep working next year and stay hungry,” Johnson said.

This is the opinion of John Denega, a Minot Daily News sports writer. John covers Minot High athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDenega_MDN.