The ball just didn't go into the hoop for Devils Lake Tuesday.
By Harry Lipsiea
In a 36-minute contest featuring solid defense from beginning to end, it was a couple of offensive plays that made the difference down the stretch. Grand Forks Red River, the fifth seed, knocked off fourth-seeded Devils Lake 54-47 in the first round of the EDC playoffs Tuesday evening.
Big performances from seniors Mark Toe and Mason Benefield made the difference for the Roughriders. The duo combined for 42 of the squad's 54 points.
"They had a couple more guys that were able to put the ball in the hoop when they needed to," Devils Lake head coach Derek Gathman told the Journal.
There weren't many scoring opportunities for either team. For much of the game, it was a half-court slugfest, that at times felt like a chess match, as both squads battled for every single point they got. The Firebirds' inability to score was due to Red River's work on the defensive end, Gathman pointed out.
"Red River played an excellent defensive game. It's as simple as that," the coach said. "You are going to be able to win any game you play, if you defend like that. Hats off to those guys, they played their butts off on the defensive end."
The loss wasn't a matter of not playing hard or desire, Gathman stated. In the end, it was just a case of being unable to find offense when the team needed it the most.
"Effort was there from our guys. It always is. I wasn't disappointed in that aspect at all," he added. "Our players battled all game long, we just didn't have it tonight."
The first half was competitive and dictated by aggressive half-court defense. Red River took an early 8-3 lead thanks to baskets by Benefield and Jordan Polynice. Devils Lake got right back into it thanks to layups by Jagger Miller and Jacob Mertens.
Trailing by three late in the half, Devils Lake went on a run thanks to inside baskets from seniors Mertens and Nik Desai. A late jumper by Mark Toe gave Grand Forks Red River a 21-20 halftime lead.
The Roughriders started out hot in the second half. A layup by Tyler Enerson, jumper by Toe and three by Benefield gave the team a 35-22 advantage.
Devils Lake, however, didn't back down. Senior reserve Patrick Bracken hit a trey and added a layup to cut the team's deficit to eight points. Miller came through with a putback while Mertens nailed a three to make the score 37-32.
Red River went on a mini-run. Two 10-foot jumpers by Toe and a Benefield shot from beyond the arc gave the five seed a commanding 46-32 lead with a little more than two minutes remaining.
The game, however, was far from over. A three-point play by Zach Dahlen got the Firebirds going. Then steals and buckets by Bracken, Mertens, Dahlen and Preston Reierson got Devils Lake within three points at 46-43 inside a minute left in regulation.
The Firebirds had an offensive possession when they were down by three points. Mertens hit a free throw after a shooting foul to make the score 46-44. That was as close as the Firebirds would get.
Two free throws by Tyler Enerson gave the Red River a 48-44 lead with 30 seconds left. Devils Lake got back within one possession as Mertens knock down one of his two free throws.
From there, however, Red River excelled from the free-throw line. Made shots at the charity stripes by Toe, Benefield and Polynice gave the Roughriders a 54-47 victory.
The heart of Devils Lake made for an exciting finish.
"I told the guys in the locker room that I was extremely proud of our finish," Gathman said. "We could have rolled when we were trailing by 14 late, but our guys battled their butts off. At least, we gave ourselves a chance down the stretch. I thought we battled, you can't fault our guys for that They gave it everything they had."
Red River had only four players in the scoring column. Toe and Benefield each had a game-high 21 points. Polynice scored eight points while Tyler Enerson added four.
Mertens led the Firebirds with 16 points. Bracken added 11 points off the bench.
"Patrick did a great job going to the basket when we needed him to," Gathman said. "He added a spark for us tonight."
Miller and Dahlen scored eight points each. Desai and Reierson rounded out the scoring with two points apiece.
With the loss, Devils Lake drops to loser-out play of the EDC tournament. The Firebirds play Fargo South Friday at 2 p.m. in Fargo. The Bruins, who lost to the Firebirds twice in the regular season, have been on a run late in the year.
"Fargo South has been playing really well," Gathman said. "They like to make it ugly, get in your face and pressure for 36 minutes. We will need to handle the ball well and find ways to score the basketball."
It's a new season for Devils Lake as the squad must win its next two games in order to qualify for its second straight state tournament.
"The important thing is that we have another opportunity, we just have to do it the long way," Gathman said. "We just need to play like it's our last game and lay it all out on the line. Our biggest focus will be finding ways to put the ball in the hoop."