THIEF RIVER FALLS -- The Cass Lake-Bena boys basketball team is headed back to the state tournament for the third consecutive season.
The Panthers had little trouble with Warren-Alvarado-Oslo and defeated the Ponies 96-62 in running time in the Section 8A championship game Friday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
After the game was over, Cass Lake-Bena senior Jeromy O'Brien stood at the edge of the court and soaked it all in while his teammates cut down the nets.
For all the experience O'Brien has winning section championships and reaching the state tournament, Friday night's win was unique and special in its own way.
"It feels good for us because there were so many doubters this year," O'Brien said. "It was nice to prove all the people wrong and win. I felt that from day one that we could get here. I knew that we would all be able to come together and make this happen."
The Panthers will enter the state tournament with a 24-6 overall record.
"This just feels great and I'm happy tonight because there were doubters who didn't think we could do it," Cass Lake-Bena senior Nate Howard said. "We did it."
Cass Lake-Bena began the season with a 3-4 record, which included a loss to rival Red Lake on the Warrior's court.
Combine those early season struggles with the loss of graduated forwards Nate and Joel Salscheider, there were thoughts that the Panthers would lose their championship grip of Section 8A this winter.
But the Panthers found momentum in the second half of the season and cruised through the Section 8A tournament, which included an 86-68 win over Red Lake in the subsection championship Tuesday night.
Like most games this season, the Cass Lake-Bena guard trio of O'Brien, Howard and junior Martin Wind carried the Panthers to the victory in Friday night's title game.
"I think think those three are the top group of guards in the state," Cass Lake-Bena head coach Dan Ninham said. "They might even be the best in the country."
The trio combined for 79 points with Wind leading the way with 29 points. Howard had 27 and O'Brien had 23.
"We've been playing together since we were in middle school and we just know where to be when we are playing," O'Brien said. "When Martin drives to the middle, I know to get in that corner and wait for the pass."
Cass Lake-Bena hit 16 3-pointers in the game. Wind had seven, O'Brien had five and Howard had four.
WAO had just five 3-pointers in the game.
Panther forward Tyler Trosen scored 10 points and was the only other Cass Lake-Bena player in double figures.
Ryan Oas scored 26 points for the Ponies and Casey Larson added 19 points. No other WAO player reached double-figures.
Cass Lake-Bena started fast and took a 4-0 lead. But the Panthers had trouble making baskets and WAO regained the lead at 6-4.
After an 8-8 tie, the Panthers were off to the races.
"I think we were just too excited when we started," Wind said. "We started too slow but then we were able to pick up the pace. Our bench energized us and told us we could play a lot better. We were hard to beat after that."
Cass Lake-Bena tightened up on defense and pulled away with a 24-4 run. The Panthers then closed out the half on a 10-0 run to lead 55-30 at the break.
The Panthers started the second half on a 9-3 run on consecutive 3-pointers from Wind, O'Brien and Howard.
The teams then traded baskets before Cass Lake-Bena went on a 10-0 run. That streak put the Panthers up 82-46 with 9:25 left and running time was put on the scoreboard.
The Minnesota State basketball tournament begins Thursday in Minneapolis.
It will be Cass Lake-Bena's fourth trip to state in five years.
The Panthers will open up against the Section 6A Champion Ada-Borup (25-4) at 3 p.m. at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.
"We played a tough schedule early and lost some games on the road at Crosby and Staples, but to play at that high level against those outstanding teams turned out to be a particular plus for us today," Ninham said. "It was good to see us to continue to improve this season. We have outstanding balance on this team and I hope that we continue to improve at state and well into next year."
CASS LAKE-BENA (92) - Wind 29, Howard 27, O'Brien 23, Trosen 10, Cameron 4, Cloud 2, Goss 1.
WAO (62) - Oas 26, Larson 19, Goodwin 7, Carlson 6, Riopelle 2, Golden 2.