'We never gave up': North Star upsets New Rockford-Sheyenne in double overtime shootout
These last two and a half weeks for the Bearcat have been a rollercoaster ride.
Feb. 19: North Star rolls off a 30-10 second quarter, seeing senior guard Tommy Nikolaisen down 26 points in the finish, to upset the No. 2 seed in District 7 New Rockford-Sheyenne
Feb. 18: After a big momentum boost following the Bearcats' win over the Rockets, North Star is blown out by No. 3 Grafton by 43 points to end the regular season.
March 1: While waiting to face Rolla for a chance to go to regionals, it's announced that games between Rolla and Saint John would be canceled due to COVID-19 exposure, advancing North Star and Rolette/Wolford into regionals. However, the cancellation means the Bearcats wouldn't see a game for 10 days.
After what had seemed like an eternity, North Star had arrived to March 8, their Region 4 tournament quarterfinal meeting with New Rockford-Sheyenne. It had been five seasons since the Bearcats had picked up a win in regionals, and had made it to the tournament only three times in the last five seasons.
They were facing an NR-S squad that they had bested by a sizable margin earlier this season, but the Rockets were coming back to their home court with a chip on their shoulder. NR-S had lost a week prior to Four Winds/Minnewaukan by 41 in the District 7 title game and its loss to North Star in the regular season would snap a four game winning streak and send them into the postseason with a loss.
With NR-S having a size advantage, specifically off of senior center Evan Ulrich at 6-foot-7-inch, North Star would turn to its shooters to guide the way, and it took them far. Like a Western film, the Bearcats and the Rockets dual would quickly turn into a shootout, seeing both teams combine for 20 3-pointers, going to the point of forcing double overtime.
Twice it looked like the Bearcats were done. NR-S would go on an 11-0 run to end the fourth quarter and force overtime, deflating a double-digit lead. In overtime, two back-to-back 3-pointers from senior forward Johnny Grann would see the Bearcats down by two possessions. But North Star was not out of bullets just yet.
Two huge 3-pointers by senior forward Ben Wagenman, one to tie in overtime and the other to win in double overtime, along with the rest of the Bearcats shooting arsenal, would give them a 72-67 edge past the Rockets for the upset and to advance to Region 4 semifinals.
"We battled lots of adversity tonight and we never gave up," Bearcats head coach Jesse Vote said. "We were down by four in one of the two overtimes down the stretch, and that's the biggest gap we had, but we were able to calm our guys down. We needed to keep things calm to keep our crowd calm, and fortunately, things went in the right direction. We had some guys hit some really big shots down the stretch."
The Bearcats shooter roll was one that was revolving throughout the game. Nikolaisen would get hot early for North Star, draining five 3-balls to finish for a team-high 19 points. However, NR-S keyed into the shooter late, needing someone to step up. Throughout the season when North Star has been in need of big shots, Wagenman has been the one to rise to the occasion according to Vote.
He would finish with 13 points on the night, downing two 3-pointers, but the stats did not dictate how important his presence was in extra time for the Bearcats. With 32 seconds left and down three in the first overtime, freshman guard Dane Hagler would swing to Wagenman in the left corner, where he would drain a 3 for the tie.
Only a few minutes later, with 13 seconds left in double overtime and down two, Nikolaisen would swing to Wagenman in the right corner where he would shoot over Ulrich to drain the winning points for the Bearcats.
"It was key just to not think about it when I got the opportunity to shoot and just be in the flow of the game," Wagenman said. "I just knocked them down when I needed to, It was kind of surreal to see that last 3-pointer fall."
The calmness of the Bearcats throughout the game played a major key in the finish according to Vote. North Star had two moments in the game where they could've slipped, but the steady hand of those on the court allowed them to keep moving. While Wagenman and Nikolaisen worked the arc, Dane Hagler and senior forward Hayden Hagler battled anyone in the paint for a scoring conversion.
Both brothers would walk a thin line with four fouls each by the final buzzer but still managed to stay in the game. Dane would finish with 17 points while Hayden would follow with 13. The Rockets were keyed into the two throughout the game and had them working for most shots. In double overtime, Dane would take a spill, hitting his head on the floor, but would get up and shoot 1-2 at the line, eventually lining up Wagenman's 3-ball to tie the game.
"We just had to make sure that we were taking care of the basketball," Vote said. "They were coming up and pressuring us, which they had to. They had us on the ropes and we just told them to run your press breaker that we've taught you all season long. We finally got calm, settled them down, and battled adversity."
It's been an interesting mix of youth and experience for North Star throughout this entire season. Their starting five is made up of two freshmen and three seniors. It took a while for things to click for North Star, but towards the end of the season, the Bearcats are now standing out as a threat as one of the final 32 teams left in the state.
"We've got lots of youth and lots of experience on the court and we've tried all year to put those kids together," Vote said. "Sometimes you get into a little conflict of interest there when you have freshmen playing up, but it's evident there. We've found the five guys we've needed on the court and I've told the rest of the team that everyone is part of this. Whether you play zero minutes or 32, you practice every day to help put us in this position."
The mix of young and old has proven to work for the Bearcats, seeing guys like Dane Hagler and freshman guard Parker Simon show little to no difference in age from the other players in the starting five. Dane has been a stand-out for North Star overall, picking up all-district accolades and standing as one of the Bearcats' top scorers night in and night out.
The team effort is coming together for North Star at the right time and they face its biggest challenge of the year in Langdon/Edmore/Munich, on the road, on Tuesday. The last time these two-faced off the Cardinals won by 23. However, the playoffs have shown that any team can win on any given night. If you look at it by the transitive property, L/E/M defeated NR-S by four in the regular season. North Star defeated NR-S by five, so if you're looking at it by that math, it should be an interesting finish.
The transitive property gives North Star an edge, but the Bearcats are looking at Tuesday's game with a much more on-court focus.
"We can't have a setback," Vote said. "Last time we played New Rockford, we went over to Grafton and we had a huge setback. However, we're in round 32 and you have to be ready to go no matter what happened the night before. When we get home, the coaches will watch some film, the kids will go to bed and we'll be ready to go tomorrow."
For the Rockets, they end their season at 15-8 overall. Grann led the scoring effort for NR-S with 32 points, downing eight 3-pointers. He was followed by Ulrich with 21, shooting 9-10 at the line. The Rockets will be losing Ulrich, Grann, senior forward Hunter Johnson, and senior guard Koven Walford to seniority. They will have an edge in returning junior forward Nick Berglund and junior guard Kaden Jensen.
As the field continues to narrow as the week goes on, seniors on the court are living in the moments that might be their last on the hardwood for the team some have called their own for in some cases five, six years. The upset victory in double extra time was one the North Star veterans are basking in, and are looking for feel even longer.
"This was a good team win and it was something we really needed," Wagenman said. "We didn't play well in districts and it was nice to bounce back after playing bad against Dunseith. It feels really good to keep the season going."
North Star 72, New Rockford-Sheyenne 67
North Star - 13, 13, 4, 21, 8, 13 - 72
New Rockford-Sheyenne - 12, 15, 11, 13, 8, 8 - 67
North Star -- Nikolaisen 2 0-1 19, D. Hagler 4 3-5 17, H. Hagler 6 2-2 14, Wagenman 1 2-2 13, Nicholas 1 0-0 5, P. Simon 0 2-4 2, Svir 1 0-0 2. Totals 15 9-14 72
New Rockford-Sheyenne -- Grann 4 0-0 32, Ulrich 6 9-10 21, Berglund 3 1-3 7, Jensen 2 1-2 5, Walford 1 0-0 2. Totals 15 10-14 67.
3-pointers: North Star 11 (Nikolaisen 5, Wagenman 3, D. Hagler 2, Nicholas 1). New Rockford-Sheyenne 8 (Grann 8).