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Crowd return powers No. 2 Four Winds/Minnewaukan boys past Benson County

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Four Winds senior Bronson Walter prepares to go up for a shot in a game against Benson County on Jan. 9 at Minnewaukan Public School.

The crowd always plays a factor in games. Superficially, for Four Winds/Minnewaukan, it's their sixth man. If it was a normal season, the gym at Four Winds High School would be "packed to the brim" with Four Winds fans, player parents, opposing team parents, and people who just want to watch basketball.  

However, like many places around the country, in order to play the season, the crowd has been extremely limited. In what would've been sell-out games earlier this season against then No. 4 Buelah and No. 2 Enderlin, the gym at Four Winds High School was nearly empty. The players have talked about the impact the crowd has on their energy and they've had to make up for that loss of noise and excitement. 

As things begin to improve, COVID-19 wise, in North Dakota, the doors to the gym have begun to creek open a little more and some fans have been allowed back into games. Friday night in Minnewaukan, while it isn't as big as the gym at Four Winds, around 125 fans overall were in attendance to watch the Indians face off against Benson County in their first game of the revised Ramsey County Tournament, and Four Winds made sure to put on a show in front of their an in-person audience for the first time this season.

After weathering the Wildcats defensive stand in the first quarter, No. 2 Four Winds/Minnewaukan's (4-1) entire bench would play a role in besting Benson County (3-4), 77-38. 

"It was nice to get the guys in front of a home crowd and to finally get some people in the stands," Indians head coach Rick Smith said. "I think the kids enjoyed getting to see their moms, dads, and brothers, who are finally getting the chance to watch them play. It was good for our boys and good for their kids to see some people in the crowd, so that was another nice thing for everyone involved." 

While the Indians would end up beating the Wildcats by 39, they did have to spend some time figuring out Benson County's defensive response. The Indians closed out the first quarter up by five but were denied a handful of chances in the paint off the Benson County zone defense. In addition to the defensive surge by the Wildcats, senior Blayne Anderson knocked down some big shots to pace the Wildcats with the Indians.

Anderson would kick the game off with the 3-ball from the top of the arc, to put Benson County up 3-0. He would down two more from deep from outside the arc throughout the game, leading all Wildcat scorers with 19 points on the night. Wildcats head coach Dustin Paulson said it's a regular occurrence for Anderson to spark the offense and the Wildcats working off of him [Anderson] to create more scoring opportunities. 

"We just got to get a couple of your kids to step up and knock down some shots," Paulson said. "Anderson will find them and they just got to step and knock them down to take some pressure off of him."

The Benson County defensive press was working, but the Indians managed to find a way around it as they would explode for 23 points in the second quarter, capped off by a buzzer-beater from senior Caelen Lohnes to build at 20 point cushion. According to Smith, the Indians benefitted from seeing Benson County's defensive attack early on in the game. 

"They did an extremely good job at running their offenses," Smith said. "They were patient, made good shots, rotated the ball, and milked the shot clock. It was their tempo, and not ours. We weren't playing bad man defense, but it just slowed the tempo down a lot. To adjust to that, we had to go to our full out zone presses and trap wherever and put pressure on. We put some pressure on their guards and they didn't like that very much. We went to our strength, which is their weakness." 

The tempo of the game is something that Smith has emphasized in a handful of games this season. Against Beulah, they weren't dictating it. Against Enderlin, they were dictating it. Friday against Benson County, whatever beat the Wildcats were running the metronome at in the first quart, the Indians took it back and cranked it all the way up. 

Four Winds forced a handful of Wildcat turnovers that would result in points at the other end of the court. Not only were the Indians pressing harder, but they were turning on the jets on offense. Four Indians broke into double figures in scoring with junior Jayden Yankon and Lohnes leading the offensive push. The duo would throw down for 14 points each followed by seniors JaeShawn Shaw (12) and Jonah Jackson (10). 

"We always talk about how do we match strength and muscle, and we know it has to be our speed," Smith said. "Those things gave us a chance to work on our press and we also have the ultimate rim protector back there. We're going to have to go a gamble to set our traps. Even if they break those traps, we should be fast enough to get back." 

"The Ultimate Rim Protector" was busy on the night as well. Senior center Bronson Walter, while challenged early on in the game, got a confidence boost in the second half to down four points from inside the paint to finish with eight on the night. In showing some visible frustration when returning to the bench when shots don't fall, Smith said that the coaching staff is trying to get Walter's confidence up by playing a little more aggressively. 

"All we're trying to do for Bronson is to get him to be a little more aggressive," Smith said. "He's the biggest and strongest kid out there, but I don't think he's playing at that right now. If he decides to play more aggressive at his game, he's unstoppable. It's just a confidence factor with him right now. We told him at halftime that he needs to stay confident and aggressive because we're going to keep going to you." 

Walter's impact in the paint was still a strong one, complimented by his team's forced turnover margin. However, on the other side of the ball, the Wildcats are looking to clean that aspect of the game up and try to recharge for their game Saturday against Rolette/Wolford. After dropping their second straight game, falling to Devils Lake JV on Thursday, Paulson said fatigue has shown on the court. 

"Today was our third game in four days and we have another one tomorrow," Paulson said. "It's been a tough stretch and our kids are getting tired. We just have to dig deep. We've hit some running teams these past two games and tomorrow we just have to regroup, and play strong." 

The Wildcats did find a silver lining at the charity stripe as they shot 9-7 from the line on the night. Anderson led that effort, shooting a perfect 4-4. As for aid for Anderson, the Wildcats did break senior Cole Wentz into double figures with 10 points. Benson County wraps up the "Ramsey County Tournament" Saturday against Larimore. The Polar Bears suffered a lopsided loss to North Star Friday, 71-17. 

In games where the spread widens, the team up usually has the opportunity to empty the bench. While ranked No. 2 in the state, this is the first time this season the Indians have opened up a game to this wide of a margin, allowing some of the bench players to come in. The game against Benson County was the first team the Indians have faced this season that haven't been ranked in the state top 10 poll or have received votes for the poll. 

In the fourth quarter, the starters and first ones off the bench took a seat, and a few players who have seen little to no court time at all took charge. Sophomore Kelson Keja, freshman Deng Deng, junior Jacolby Person, freshman Dalen Leftbear, and senior Brady Cavanaugh all broke onto the score sheet, with Cavanaugh highlighting the effort with a 3-ball from the corner. Cavanaugh's shot had the starters on their feet and the rest of the gym cheering with them. 

"Guys like Brady Cavanaugh and Keyen Omen are in practice every single day in their four-year career," Smith said. "There's sometimes where they don't ever get in or sit a lot during practice, and it just shows what they're there for. They're not there for themselves because when you call on them they're ready to go. They don't care if it's a minute left on the clock, they come right out of their chairs. It's just a testament to our bench." 

The win and the bench dump into the game were high points for the Indians in the end, Four Winds players and coaching staff were just happy that they had a crowd to play in front of Friday. A few weeks ago when the Indians were No. 1 and Enderlin was No. 2, he kept thinking of how packed the gym would've been. Indian fans and just basketball fans have been eager to get out to games, but have had COVID-19 limit fans to their couches to watch the game over Facebook Live or NFHS Network. 

Losing their sixth man has been an adjustment for the Indians, but getting a taste of that on Friday in Minnewaukan gave Four Winds not just a 1/2 of that sixth man on the court, but hope that the crowds will be coming back to their home games.

"The kids just loved having their relatives and regular fans who support them all the time here cheering them on," Smith said. "I just hope and pray we can continue to pack the gyms everywhere we go this year because it's what these kids deserve. This senior class worked hard to get where they are and they deserve to have the fans, support, and electricity in the gym. They've dreamt about that and they've waited for that, and now it's their turn." 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.

Four Winds/Minnewaukan - 77, Benson County - 38 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan - 17, 23, 28, 9 - 77

Benson County - 12, 8, 8, 10 - 38 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan (4-1) -- Yankton 5 1-2 14, Lohnes 2 4-4 14, Shaw 6 0-0 12, Jackson 5 0-0 10, Walter 4 0-0 8, Keja 3 2-2 8, Cavanaugh 0 0-0 3, Person 1 0-0 2, Leftbear 1 0-0 2, Keja 0 2-2 2, Deng 1 0-0 2. Totals 28 9-11 77

Benson County (3-4) -- Anderson 2 4-4 19, Wentz 4 2-3 10, Larson 2 0-0 4, Benson 1 0-0 2, Fischer 1 0-0 2, O'Connell 0 1-2 1. Totals 11 7-9 38 

3-pointers: Four Winds/Minnewaukan 4 (Lohnes 2, Cavanaugh 1, Yankton 1). Benson County 3 (Anderson 3