Firebirds second half comeback falls short to Century, season ends in state quarterfinals
The Firebirds and Patriots over the past two seasons have played in some memorable games in the state tournament. In 2019, Devils Lake narrowly lost to Century in Bismarck for the state title. In 2020, Devils Lake held off a Patriots comeback to advance to state semifinals. 2021 was yet another chapter in that saga.
Down 13 at halftime, it looked like the Firebirds' season was over. Century's Julia Fitterer and Logan Nissley had lit up the offense, combining for 19 of the Patriots 36 points. Meanwhile, Devils Lake was struggling to get things going on offense. Firebirds head coach Justin Klein compared his team's offensive organization to a junior high team.
But simialr to the last two meetings, the team losing was not out just yet. Devils Lake's spark plug in senior guard Jailyn Martinson would erupt for 21 points in the second half, cutting the deficit down to as low as one point. The defense continued to hold for the Firebirds and the offense began to rise. However, so did Nissley's performance.
The hole dug early by the Firebirds and 25 points from Nissley would be too much to overcome for Devils Lake as they would fall to Bismarck Century, 74-62, seeing their season end in NDHSAA Class A Girls State Tournament quarterfinals. The Firebirds end their season with a record of 17-4.
"I thought we gave it a really good effort," Firebirds head coach Justin Klein said. "I put it all out there and we had a much better second half. We gave it a run and we came up short. They were a really good team and did some things down the stretch where they executed and hit some big shots that put it away."
Heading back into the locker room at halftime, WDAY had conducted an interview with Klein where he expressed his displeasure with the team's offensive performance in the first half. So the team added some more movement and focused more on skipping the ball. That's where Martinson came in.
In her final game of the season, she went from being almost completely shut down in the first half, picking up only two points, to getting in a shoot-out with Nessly. Throughout the season, Martinson has sparked the offense either at the beginning of the game or out of halftime. Coming out of the locker room she would score 10 straight points for the Firebirds and continue to chug along until she would foul out late. For a time, Martinson played a key role that broke Century's system to eliminate her and other shooting guards.
"We talked about skipping the ball more at halftime and adding a little more motion to our offense," Klein said. "We talked to her [Martinson] about attacking the hoop off the skip. She forced some things in the first half and just realized where everyone was on defense and took over."
Martinson and senior guard Ramsey Brown, who would finish with six points, were a focus for the Patriots throughout the game and didn't see too much scoring in the first half. However, the Firebirds' game plan was to work their post, an area where Century has struggled. Junior center Rachel Dahlen led the effort on that end with 10 points, while senior forward Laila Gourd would have the edge in the pulldown game with a team-high five rebounds.
Bismarck Century 74, Devils Lake 62
Bismarck Century - 36, 38 - 74
Devils Lake - 23, 39 - 62
Bismarck Century -- Nissley 8 6-6 25, Fitterer 5 2-2 15, Anderson 4 2-3 10, B. Kinnebrew 2 4-7 9, A. Kinnebrew 3 0-0 7, Klein 1 2-2 4, Fletcher 1 0-0 2. Totals 25 16-20 74.
Devils Lake -- Martinson 9 4-5 23, Dahlen 5 0-0 10, Gourd 3 0-2 7, Barendt 3 1-2 7, Brown 3 0-0 6, Krogfoss 2 2-2 6, Fritel 0 3-4 3. Totals 25 10-15 62.
3-pointers: Bismarck Century 8 (Nissley 3, Fitterer 3, A. Kinnebrew 1, B. Kinnebrew 1). Devils Lake 2 (Martinson 1, Gourd 1).
The pair not only showed their strengths in the paint but on defense and further out on offense. Gourd, who spent the majority of her time on the post, would drain one of the Firebirds' 3-pointers, catching Century off guard. Dahlen was able to play the game buzzer to buzzer, despite playing with four fouls for the majority of the second half.
"That was something we talked about because she got in foul trouble in the first half and then came back out," Klein said. "We needed her inside to rebound, so we told her to play straight up and not to extend her arms."
The offense was able to level out for Devils Lake as the game progressed, but Century was able to put together a full game in scoring off of the hot hand of Nissley. Averaging 21 points per game, she'd break that average with 25, downing three 3-pointers along the way. She remained hot for Century, but for a stretch, Devils Lake found a way to remove her from the game for a stretch, forcing her to commit a fourth foul.
"We told Martinson not to let her get the ball back if she gives it up and to stay with her," Klein said. "We wanted her to work hard when she got open and to take tough shots. She's a good player and she showed that down the stretch."
It was a game that Devils Lake was in from start to finish, but just couldn't cross the hump. With 30 seconds left in the game and the Firebirds down 10, Klein called a timeout to reiterate the message that he's told his team all season: play to the buzzer.
"I told them to keep fighting to the end," Klein said. "It was an opportunity for us to play here and we weren't going to give up. That's kind of been our motto this season. Don't give up. Don't quit and it shows in games. The seniors said that we've been down 13 before and that we can come back."
In the finish, Devils Lake puts up a fifth straight appearance at the state tournament and a fourth straight single-digit loss season. The bulk of this run has been made up by the Firebirds senior class in Martinson, Gourd, Brown, senior guard Jenna Frelich, senior guard Malayna Barendt, senior center Karli Krogfoss, and senior guard Avery Swenson.
The majority of them will be going on to play at the college level, but are leaving a big gap in the program upon their dismissal. While they might be ending their careers without a state title, they have played key roles into one of the most successful runs in Devils Lake basketball history, a program that is considered smaller at the Class A level.
"They've put a lot of time in during travel ball and played some AAU," Klein said. "They were always at open gyms and playing basketball. It's a big group and a big group to fill, but just like any group we've lost in the last four, five years we've just got to find ways to do it and find ways to get better."