GIRLS BASKETBALL: Bench play sends Bemidji to 1st section championship in 10 years

The Lumberjacks carry smiles through the handshake line after Saturday's Section 8-3A Tournament semifinal win over Sartell-St. Stephen at the BHS Gymnasium. (Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- With just one seat open at the table, the Bemidji High School girls basketball reserves booked the reservations to the Section 8-3A championship game.

“You just never know who you’re going to need, right?” BHS head coach Steve Schreiber said. “Our bench, everybody there knows they have a role and need to be ready. The girls trust us, as coaches, to have the right people on the court. And they trust the girls on the court to do what they need to do.”

Jackie Johnson, Jody Pemberton and Rylie Jones were the Lumberjacks’ biggest weapons on Saturday, and the three drove home a 69-54 semifinal win over Sartell-St. Stephen inside the BHS Gymnasium.

“(The coaches) put us in, and they didn’t tell us we needed to bring the energy this time, but we kind of knew,” Johnson said. “We obviously all want to go to state, so we were all like, ‘It’s all or nothing tonight.’”

The third-seeded Sabres (11-16) never threatened Bemidij’s wire-to-wire lead too seriously, but the Lumberjack bench quieted a last-ditch 7-0 run with dominant play down the stretch.


“It was nice that we got the opportunity to come in and close it out,” Pemberton said. “I think it’s nice that they trust us to close out the game and had faith in us to finalize it.”

Sartell-St. Stephen cut what was once a 16-point deficit to nine with just under four minutes to play. But Pemberton and Johnson then checked in, meeting Jones already on the court, and the three had their fingerprints all over the finish.

Pemberton had the first answer with a layup through contact after a Jones defensive rebound. Johnson extended out for a block the next time down, Jones scored inside for the game’s next basket, and then BHS added on points, rebounds and steals for an 8-0 run that iced the win.

“They don’t want the season to be over yet. That’s exactly what it says,” Schreiber said. “… We knew it was going to be a dogfight. We showed up. We played well tonight.”

In the first half, Bemidji didn’t miss a beat while running and gunning through a blistering pace.

Katie Alto poured in 17 points to give the second-seeded Lumberjacks a 40-29 boost at the break. Although Sartell-St. Stephen was as close as 23-21 with seven minutes to go, the BHS defense allowed just two points over the next five minutes.

“(This game) shows that we can really play as a team when we communicate and do all the little things right,” Johnson said. “Tonight, we were a little more confident in it and a little more put together.”

The difference never shrunk any lower than nine from then on out. While the Sabres nearly grabbed momentum for a moment, there was no stopping Bemidji’s charge to the championship game.


“It was really needed for us to get a big push going into the section finals now,” Pemberton said. “Even when it comes to the big games, we push through. We love each other and trust each other to secure the games.”

All of Alto’s 17 points came in the first half but still stood as the game high. Emily Wade worked up to 13 for the Jacks, while Jones hit 10. Johnson and Pemberton tallied just five apiece but played bigger than that.

“We knew, if we played like we did on Thursday, we were not going to win this game,” Johnson said of a subpar first-round victory. “So everybody knew we had to step it up. We really want to make it to state this year. Our coaches believe, we all believe and I’m hoping the fans believe it.”

BHS will meet top-seeded Alexandria at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 5, in Detroit Lakes. Bemidji is making its first championship appearance in 10 years and hopes to end a state tournament drought just as long.

“The magnitude of the game is there, and it’ll be there on Thursday, too,” Schreiber said. “But I need them to relax and smile. … I just want them to enjoy it. This doesn’t happen all that often in this program. It hasn’t in 10 years.”

No. 2 Bemidji 69, No. 3 Sartell-St. Stephen 54

SSS 29 25 -- 54


BHS 40 29 -- 69

SARTELL-ST. STEPHEN (11-16) -- Templin 16, G. Mahowald 15, E. Crandall 6, L. Crandall 6, Snoberger 6, E. Mahowald 3, Larson 2.

BEMIDJI (19-8) -- Alto 17, E. Wade 13, R. Jones 10, L. Hildenbrand 8, Hofstad 6, Johnson 5, Pemberton 5, T. Wade 3, Bolte 2.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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