DETROIT LAKES -- As their curtain call came, the Bemidji High School girls basketball seniors exited the court for the final time.
Twelve seconds later, Alexandria celebrated a section title on the very same hardwood.
“It’s heartbreaking when you know you can’t play again,” senior Lindsey Hildenbrand said. “I’m proud of all we accomplished this year.”
The Lumberjacks had to watch in agony as the Cardinals lifted the Section 8-3A championship trophy Thursday night, their reward for fending off a valiant second-half push and winning 63-51 in Detroit Lakes.
FINAL: Alexandria 63, Bemidji 51.— Micah Friez (@micahfriez) March 6, 2020
The Lumberjacks came as close as six, with possession, but the Cardinals had every answer needed to return to the state tournament for the third time in four years. A valiant rally for BHS falls a bucket or two short. pic.twitter.com/z5bq54E6xt
The odds were certainly stacked against BHS coming in. Bemidji was on a section-championship stage for the first time in a decade, while Alexandria made its 10th trip in 11 years. Jacks head coach Steve Schreiber even missed the game due to influenza and bronchitis.
And yet, here they were, on the doorstep of a 16-point rally and on the verge of history.
“I was just saying, ‘Let’s put everything out there,’” Hildenbrand said. “Everyone tried their hardest. We did all we could. Some of our last shots didn’t fall, and that would have been a game-changer.”
Instead, the final walk off the court stung all too real.
“It’s just hard to come back,” said BHS assistant coach Rusty Johnson, who filled in as acting head coach. “There have been games when we’ve come back, but against a team like Alex, Wendy (Kohler) knows what she’s doing.”
Kohler’s top-seeded Cardinals came to play. Their famed defense forced consistent takeaways and held second-seeded Bemidji (19-9) without a point for a span of 6 minute, 49 seconds during the first half, which allowed Alexandria (22-7) to build up a deadly 16-0 run.
“It’s kind of been our M.O. all year,” Johnson said. “We can’t get over that little lull. We come out, start well, then we hit that lull.”
The Lumberjacks trailed 24-8 by the end of the onslaught, but Katie Alto finally drained a 3-pointer to snap BHS out of it. Emily Wade later hustled for a putback layup, making for an 11-3 run that got Bemidji within 30-22, but the Cardinals still held a controlling 37-24 lead by halftime.
The Jacks turned around their fate with a 7-0 run out of the break, which included the fourth foul for Alexandria headliner Ella Grove less than three minutes in.
The balanced Cardinals still had the answer for much of the second half, but a last-ditch 7-0 run had BHS within six. Katie Alto and Jody Pemberton opened it with layups, then Rylie Jones added three free throws for a 53-47 deficit with 4:20 to play.
Bemidji even got possession back with the score intact, but Jackie Johnson missed a fearless 30-foot shot that would have brought the house down.
Alexandria’s Mia McGrane instead drove in for back-to-back layups that all but sealed the Lumberjacks’ fate.
“(Coming back) is very hard compared to some other teams we’ve played,” Hildenbrand said. “They’re super experienced and they’ve been in this position, where we’ve never been in this position.”
With free throws to the finish, the Cardinals eliminated BHS from its longest postseason run in 10 years.
Wade finished with 12 points to lead Bemidji, while Alto had 10 alongside eight apiece from Hildenbrand and Ashley Hofstad.
Rather than the celebratory postgame huddle, the Lumberjacks had the one with hard tears and final hugs.
“I love them,” coach Johnson said of the seniors. “It’s pretty simple. What more can you say? They changed the culture of Bemidji girls basketball.”
With red medals draped around their necks, the BHS seniors gathered one final time in Lumberjack uniforms. Arm in arm, Hildenbrand, Alto, Hofstad, Taylor Wade and Jenna Jones said goodbye to the game.
And the message was pretty simple.
“We love each other,” Hildenbrand said. “It was an awesome (13) years.”
Bemidji’s seniors share one final moment on the court.— Micah Friez (@micahfriez) March 6, 2020
Lindsey Hildenbrand: “We love each other. It was an awesome (13) years.” pic.twitter.com/OzPQw6qQlG
No. 1 Alexandria 63, No. 2 Bemidji 51
BHS 24 27 -- 51
ALX 37 26 -- 63
BEMIDJI (19-9) -- E. Wade 12, Alto 10, L. Hildenbrand 8, Hofstad 8, Pemberton 6, Johnson 4, R. Jones 3.
ALEXANDRIA (22-7) -- M. McGrane 15, Hatlestad 12, Grove 10, Horn 9, Kremer 8, Hoelscher 4, Gerhardt 2, Strand 2, Bloom 1.