Firebirds soar ahead to claim 81-76 OT win against Hi-Liners

John B. Crane
Devils Lake Journal

DEVILS LAKE – On the seventh day of Christmas, a lover might decide to gift their significant other with seven swimming swans. 

For comparison’s sake, a couple of basketball teams might decide to gift the crowd with an overtime finish on Dec. 7. 

This was precisely the gift the Devils Lake Firebirds and Valley City Hi-Liners presented to a packed crowd Tuesday evening. However, the predominantly Firebird-aligned audience had a couple of additional gifts they had the liberty of finding under the gymnasium lights. They had the opportunity to see first-year head coach Dustin Brodina lead the Firebirds in his first game from the pine. 

Senior guard Hayden Hofstad raises his hands in order to get the crowd to cheer near the end of the game.

One final present under the red and white tree for Devils Lake coaches, players and fans turned out to be an 81-76 overtime win in Devils Lake’s favor on Dec. 7. 

With the win, the Firebirds are 1-0 to open the season for the first time since the 2018-19 season (Devils Lake beat Grand forks Central, 71-43, on Dec. 4, 2018). The Firebirds failed to collect their first win until their 14th game during the 2020-21 season (they started the season 0-13). The win is additionally Devils Lake’s first to come in overtime since Dec. 11, 2018 (they beat Fargo Shanley, 59-51). 

To Brodina, the win signified his team’s hard work and dedication to practice. 

“Overwhelmed,” Devils Lake head coach Dustin Brodina said after the game. “Exciting. The boys worked hard. They have been working their butts off, and it showed tonight. You could tell they were in shape because they kept up. Obviously, a lot of things we have to shore up offensively and defensively, but a far as the first game and getting it under our belt, I could not be prouder of our guys.” 

The conditioning was not the only defining characteristic for the Firebirds. Devils Lake’s ability to cash in on second-chance scoring opportunities revealed itself early and often. The Firebirds started the game on a 12-8 run mainly due to three separate second-chance opportunities via Ben Heilman, Keauno Newton and Hayden Hofstad. 

Although the Firebirds and Hi-Liners found themselves locked in a 32-32 stalemate through 18 minutes of play, the ability to crowd the paint and grab an extra scoring chance helped give the former a competitive advantage.

“That was one of the things we talked about before pre-game [and] also at halftime,” Brodina said. “There was a lot of opportunity for the offensive rebounds, crashing the glass and getting those second-chance points. I thought we did a great job of it. Offensively, we found our spots. We found our rhythm. We just got to shore up some things defensively a little bit.”

However, the Hi-Liners did not go away quietly. Although the Firebirds rocketed ahead to a 53-43 lead with 7:59 left in regulation, the quick-thinking Hi-Liners found success in their-fast paced transition that helped net them three-pointer after three-pointer. 

And so, the stage was set. With 1.7 seconds left, senior guard/forward Andrew Bernston nailed a three-pointer right as time expired to erase a 69-66 deficit and give the Hi-Liners a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. 

“You got one second left, they make a buzzer-beater and your hopes are down, but you have to clear that out of your mind,” Brodina said. “You still have four minutes to play. No matter what happened, you still have to step up and play, and I thought the boys responded greatly. They came out of it, played hard. Things we have been preaching, they did it. It was like a repeat, and they did it. They figured it out and got the win.” 

Senior guard Ben Heilman (middle) is helped off of the court following a leg injury. He would eventually return to the game.

After Heilman went down with a leg injury, Newton and Hofstad found their rebounding and shooting stride to give the Firebirds a 75-72 lead with 1:22 left in overtime. 

Once Heilman re-entered the game and nailed a floater to make the score 77-72, it then became a game at the free-throw line, where the Firebirds did what was necessary to pull out the closely contested win. 

To Heilman, it all came back to making a big play at the right time. 

“Just make the right play and be smart with the ball,” senior guard Ben Heilman said after the game. “Do whatever we can do to win and work hard all of the time.” 

The Firebirds have started the season on the right foot after the victory. Moving forward, it is about working in practice and preparing for the next bout. 

Heilman kept it simple. 

“It feels really good, Heilman said. “The first couple weeks of practice have been tough, and we worked really hard for it. Everybody has bought in, and I just feel accomplished right now. Get another one on Friday.” 

The Firebirds will take on West Fargo at Devils Lake Sports Center at 7:15 p.m. CT on Dec. 10.