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Inspired Perham wins state opener

Perham's Zach Gabbard is wheeled on the playing court by volunteer coach Craig Dahms as his teammates greet him during player introductions Wednesday at the Minnesota Class state boys 2A tournament in Minneapolis. David Samson/The Forum

MINNEAPOLIS - There is something to be said for experience. Like how, at times, it can be a bit overrated.

Perham's boys basketball team for the first time in school history was in "the show," dealing with the bright lights, big-time college gym. And all this came against Virginia, a team that's made the state tournament the last two seasons.

None of that really mattered. Perham (29-1) showed no mercy, using a first-half pummeling to cruise to a 57-40 win on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Minnesota Class 2A state boys basketball tournament at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota.

"Our defense, it played really well," said point guard Jordan Bruhn. "I think what we were able to do really helped us out in that second half when they were making it a closer game."

The first test in the state tournament sure was a lofty one. Add all the previously mentioned reasons - along with the team seeing teammate Zach Gabbard for the first time since he collapsed during a game on Jan. 20 - and it's easy to understand why the first half was important.

Being active was the key for Perham on both ends of the court. Defensively, the team bought into having active hands in the passing lanes, leading to steals. Or being able to box out for rebounds while making Virginia take bad shots from all over the court.

Virginia was struggling, and even its band might have missed the memo when it played "Paint It Black" when Perham walked out of the tunnel. Perham's colors are black and yellow.

"Having him back was definitely an inspiration for us," said Perham guard Jordan Cresap.

If anyone would know, it would be Cresap.

Cresap, who along with Bruhn grew up with Gabbard, was thrust into the starting lineup to take Gabbard's place.

The smile Gabbard flashed after Cresap hit a 3-pointer was an indicator that he was pleased. It was one of five he knocked down.

Cresap scored a game-high 19, and he did it in a variety of ways. He did it with backdoor cuts leading to easy layups, and because Perham uses a motion offense, it allowed him to come off a screen multiple times and knock down a shot off the wing.

Asked how Gabbard would evaluate his performance, Cresap said, "He'd probably say I did well, but I gotta start making more layups."

Instead of just "One Clap for Zach," there was plenty of clapping when he showed up at Williams Arena.

The last time Zach Gabbard was on a basketball court, on Jan. 20, he collapsed while playing. Yet on Wednesday, the 17-year-old was full of life when he was on hand to watch the Perham boys basketball team win its first-ever game in the Minnesota Class 2A state boys basketball tournament with a 57-40 win over Virginia.

"To see Zach before the game was so great," said junior captain and point guard Jordan Bruhn. "Tears ran down my face when we saw him for the first time."

Gabbard's collapse brought attention to the tiny town of 2,400 people, with support from all over the nation pouring in.

Yet for such a well-known figure, he was pretty clandestine when it came to arriving at the arena.

Perham head coach Dave Cresap said it had been planned for Gabbard to be at the game, but it was going to be a surprise for the players and fans in attendance.

"It was hard for me, because you want to tell them but you can't," said Cresap, a Hawley native. "We told the kids that he was going to be talking to them through a video conference."

And just when the team thought it was going to be seeing Gabbard through a screen, they saw the real thing instead.

That's when the emotions flowed. Hugs, tears, handshakes and high-fives all for their teammate who has been hospitalized since he collapsed from a heart-related issue.

Perham's players might not have known it, but a few people did see Gabbard come into the building. He was in the passenger seat of a green Chevy Lumina and his dad, Stephen, was getting a wheelchair out of the trunk. Players from opposing teams recognized him and said hello to him while he was waiting to get out.

Then, of course came the big moment. After Perham's players ran out of the tunnel, Gabbard was wheeled out to the court.

He received a massive ovation from Perham and Virginia fans as he mouthed "thank you" to everyone showing him support.

"Seeing Zach was awesome," said Perham student manager and sophomore Destiny Mitchell. "When he came out, it was really cool to see."

Mitchell, perhaps, had the best seat in the house because she sat next to Gabbard. Gabbard was sitting behind the team bench with his father watching the game.

Every now and again, he could be seen reacting to a big basket or a defensive stop that took momentum away from Virginia.

"He told us that he wanted to be out there hitting those big 3s," Mitchell said. "That was something we were all really happy to hear."

Mitchell said Gabbard's appearance had changed quite a bit. She said that his voice was really hoarse and it took a lot for him to speak.

Cresap added that Gabbard had lost around 40 pounds since the incident. He said most of the weight was muscles in his upper body and in his legs.

Gabbard was unavailable for comment.

Perham's win extends what has been indeed a magical season with what is now a 29-1 record. The Yellowjackets play again on Friday at the Target Center, and a win there would put Perham in the state title game, a sight Gabbard would surely not want to miss.

"Yes, he'll be here for the next game," Cresap said. "We're looking forward to having him there."