Nelson scores 41 points, pulled down 22 rebounds as Devils Lake fends off West Fargo to advance to the East Region tournament semis.

First Devils Lake lost its starting point guard. Then, Devils Lake lost the lead it had for the first 25 minutes of the game. But what Devils Lake didn’t lose was its composure — nor the game.

Powered by Grant Nelson’s 41 points and 22 rebounds, the Firebirds broke free of West Fargo late to come away with the 72-64 win Tuesday, March 3 in the East Region tournament quarterfinals from the Sports Center. The Firebirds, who entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed, moved onto the SCHEELS Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex for the semifinals against Fargo Davies.

The Eagles defeated Fargo North 97-75 Tuesday night.

“What I was most impressed about was how tough they were,” said Firebirds head coach Derek Gathman about how his team battled through falling behind for the first time all game in the second half. “We could’ve have quit, we could’ve rolled over and just said that we don’t have one of our better guys and we’re done but the kids fought.”

The Firebirds (13-9) led from the opening moments of the game and were still ahead six minutes into the second half but behind an 18-10 stretch, the Packers took the lead for the first time in the ballgame at 43-42 after a field goal by Carson Hegerle with 11:17 remaining. A Nelson basket gave the Firebirds the lead again but a 3-pointer by Hegerle allowed the Packers to retake the lead at 46-44.

The Firebirds responded with a mini tear of their own. On the ensuing possession, Nelson completed a 3-point play. Then Braden Fee scored a basket that put the Firebirds ahead by three and maintaining that advantage, Kyler Longie’s 3 with 7:28 left put the Firebirds ahead by six. It proved to be enough to advance to the semis.

“We had kids coming off the bench making shots. Longie hit that 3, I’m over there shaking my head but they are confident in themselves to make plays and it makes a coach look good when players make plays,” Gathman said.

Gathman said that his team had to change offensively once sophomore point guard Ben Heilman went down in the first half with a knee injury. It forced Nelson and Widmer to take over the ball handling duties. Along with his 41 points, Nelson also finished with four assists and three blocks. Widmer scored 10 points and his field goal with 1:52 left kept the lead at three.

“I think it worked to our favor because it pulled our big guys out of the paint a little more,” said Gathman.

Hunter Lyman scored 23 points and had 14 rebounds for the Packers (12-10). Matt Miller scored 20 for West Fargo.

“I told the kids that we have to get two wins to get to state, we got that number down to one now,” Gathman began. “We played Davies really well the last time we played them and I don’t think they want to see us. Obviously that’s going to be a tough game but it’s going to be fun.

“And then to me, it puts us in a really good spot going forward regardless of how the game ends.”

The Firebirds lost to the Eagles by four in their last meeting on Feb. 18.

Chris Harris can be reached at charris@devilslakejournal.com.