BEMIDJI – Heading into the winter the Bemidji boys basketball fans had an inkling that victories would be tough to come by.
The Lumberjacks returned no key players from the previous season and the new coaching staff knew that this year’s team would have to work for every success.
Bemidji entered Thursday’s home game against Grand Rapids as a decided underdog as the Thunderhawks had fashioned a 10-3 record, mainly because of the talents of 6-9 center Alex Illikainen.
The sophomore performed his magic once again on Thursday, scoring 24 points and leading Grand Rapids to a 61-46 victory.
The Jacks couldn’t stop Illikainen but they did control the rest of the Thunderhawks. Defensively BHS limited the visitors to only 61 points and Bemidji stayed with its guest most of the way.
With 5:50 to play the Lumberjacks trailed only 46-41 and had a few possessions to narrow that gap.
But Grand Rapids used a pair of buckets by Illikainen to widen its cushion to 50-41 and then cemented the victory by converting 11 free throws down the stretch.
“At the end we were going for the steals and that always is a tough strategy,” BHS coach Dan Ninham said. “We needed to foul to try and get the ball and Grand Rapids made its free throws.”
Until the final minutes Bemidji didn’t play like a team that has a 1-13 record. The Lumberjacks led 13-10 with 10:20 to play in the first half and were down only 31-25 at the break.
Illikainen had 12 points by intermission but no other Thunderhawk had more than five. BHS was led by the six-point efforts of Jeremiah Huseby and Richard Seado.
Early in the second half BHS controlled the play. A pair of 3-pointers by Billy Baumgartner and Connor McNallan’s tip enabled the Jacks to tie the game at 33-33.
Illikainen scored from the paint to regain the edge for the Thunderhawks but Huseby answered with a power move inside to knot the score at 35-35.
The tide turned, however, when Grand Rapids used a 9-1 run to take a 44-36 lead. And the Lumberjacks never caught up.
“I thought the way we played was encouraging,” Ninham said. “All season we have said that we need to compete and we are doing that. But we also need to be competitive and I think we are moving forward in that area.
“Now we need to take the next step and get a few wins.”
Bemidji’s next opportunity to grab a victory will be tonight when it travels to Cloquet (6-7). The next home appearance for the Jacks will be Feb. 7 against Duluth East.
Grand Rapids (61): Barrette 1, 0-0, 3; Watland 3, 0-0, 7; Reitter 2, 4-4, 7; Elhard 2, 6-7, 11; Gill 1, 5-6, 7; Illikainen 12, 0-2, 24; Smokrovich 1, 0-4, 2. Totals: 21, 15-23, 61
Bemidji (46): Baumgartner 3, 0-1, 9; McNallan 3, 1-2, 7; Strong 0, 0-0, 0; Ingalls 1, 0-0, 4; Seado 3, 1-2, 9; Hendricks 2, 0-0, 5; Bruns 0, 0-0, 0; Misco 0, 0-0, 0; Huseby 6, 0-3, 12. Totals: 19, 2-8, 46
3-point FG: Grand Rapids 4, Bemidji 6 (Baumgartner 3, Seado 2, Hendricks 1)
Fouls: Grand Rapids 12, Bemidji 21
Halftime: Grand Rapids 31, Bemidji 25