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State tournament begins today for Lumberjack girls against Sartell

Bemidji head coach Rick Kehoe, center, gives out final instructions to the Lumberjacks after Tuesday's pep fest. The team then boarded the bus for Minneapolis and the state tournament. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The colorful Bemidji High School girls basketball team opens the state tournament today in Minneapolis.

The Lumberjacks, with their fluorescent shoelaces and sparkle painted nails, face Sartell-St. Stephen at 4 p.m. in the Class 3A quarterfinals at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

"I don't get nervous, I get anxious," Bemidji senior Megan Huseby said. "I just want to get out there and play in front of everyone. We hope it's just like Hibbing where we had all the fans there to help us - and the band - the atmosphere was just awesome."

The field is strong at state this year with an undefeated team in top-seed DeLaSalle and six of the eight teams entering tournament play with five losses or less.

"There are some intimidating teams, but we think we can show some of those city teams what good basketball there is in outstate Minnesota," Huseby said. "We want to show that northern Minnesota can play basketball."

The Jacks enter their first state tournament since 2001 with a 25-1 record and on a 20-game winning streak. Sartell enters its first state tournament since 2005 with a 23-5 record.

Other quarterfinal match-ups at Williams Arena are: No. 1 DeLaSalle (29-0) vs. New Prague (20-9) at 10 a.m., No. 4 HIll-Murray (23-5) vs. Annandale (20-7) at noon and No. 2. Benilde-St. Margaret's (27-2) vs. Willmar (23-4) at 2 p.m.

Winners of the first two games meet at Target Center at noon Thursday. The Bemidji-Sartell winner faces the Benilde-Willmar winner follows at 2 p.m. The season ends for losing teams Wednesday.

Television coverage begins for Thursday's semifinal games on KSTC.

"There are some really good teams at state but we think we can play with anyone," Bemidji senior Selina Gilbertson said. "But we have to get past Sartell first and I think they are really good. We're going to need to box out, rebound and run."

Bemidji has faced Sartell already this season, prevailing 62-52 at Sartell on Jan. 16 as part of the current 20-game winning streak. The Jacks have the second fewest losses entering the tournament and are on a roll by winning the last five games by 20 points or more. But Grace Felling insists the Lumberjacks have been challenged this season.

She pointed to a rally to beat Burnsville, a rally to beat Brainerd in overtime and a hard-fought overtime win against state-ranked Alexandria.

The only loss this season came at Eden Prairie (20-7) in December. The Jacks led that game at halftime before the Eagles caught fire in the second half.

"I think people may be looking that we have played only easy teams, but I know we have dropped some of those easier teams this year to play harder teams we wouldn't have played in the past," Felling said. "I think we have proved we can do well against good teams."

Against Sartell the Jacks will look to the leadership of Kayla Hirt, Erika Weimann and Kelsey Heisler. Hirt leads the team in scoring and rebounds with 26.6 points per game and 14.3 rebounds per game. Weimann is the team's top 3-point shooter and Heisler provides solid all-around play under the basket.

Bemidji head coach Rick Kehoe said there is a slight possibility senior Abby Hendricks could play Wednesday. She sprained her ankle two weeks ago in the section semifinal against Grand Rapids.

"We're surprised that there's even a chance she could play," Kehoe said. "We didn't think it was going to be possible. Even if we could get one minute out of Abby, that would be better than we could have ever expected."

The Jacks will go up against a defensive-minded Sartell team that is expected to hold on to the ball for long stretches to counter Bemidji's fast-paced offense. The Sabres are led by senior Andrea Whitney, who averages 15.9 points per game and holds the school's record for blocks (102) and rebounds (315) in a season.

"We just need to be calm and focus in on this game because if we don't, we're going to be going home early," Bemidji senior Caitlin Gangelhoff said. "This has been our dream since we were in fifth grade in our first year of Bombers, when I was playing with Abby and Kelsey. We would always go to the high school games and look at the state banners. We'd see one that read 1974 and say, 'that's too long ago.'"