BOYS BASKETBALL: Cass Lake-Bena aims to rewrite history as one of Minnesota's top Class A teams
March has left a sour taste in the mouth of the Cass Lake-Bena boys hoops team over the last four years. With another prime opportunity in front of them, their yearn to perform has never been higher.
CASS LAKE – March has been a bittersweet month for the Cass Lake-Bena boys basketball team over the last five years.
The month of madness has been a time to celebrate Northland Conference titles and high win totals and dream about the feeling of running onto the court at the Class A state basketball tournament. For some Panthers, those dreams are memories, while the rest lean on their imagination.
This March will start similarly to the last four. CLB rolled to an 85-73 win over Blackduck on Tuesday at home, wrapping up a 25-2 regular season and the No. 1 seed in the Section 8A Tournament, which starts on Thursday, March 9. But this time, the Panthers hope to write a different ending.
“We’ve been here before. We’ve done this,” Cass Lake-Bena head coach John Wind said. “We know what we want to do, and we know what it takes to do it. Go out there and do what we need to do to win these games. In those section finals, we lost it ourselves."
The Panthers were snubbed of their last four state tournament berths, including three runner-up finishes in the Section 8A title game. Last year’s 69-67 double-overtime loss against Sacred Heart at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls was the latest in a gut-wrenching list of hard-to-swallow outcomes.
Whether it was another formidable team in Section 8A or the COVID-19 pandemic standing in the way, the Panthers have come one win short of hanging a banner four straight years. The Cass Lake-Bena faithful yearn for another chance to compete for a state title.
“It’s about trying to get the boys to play as a unit. Once you get on the floor together, you can’t relax,” Wind said. “It’s a work in progress. We’re still working on it. We had some breakdowns in the defense, breakdowns in the offense, and we have to clean that stuff up. We have until next Thursday when the tournament starts.”
The Panthers honored their seniors and parents in their final regular-season home game. Blackduck took advantage of an atypical starting five, jumping to a 15-7 lead in the first six minutes.
Cass Lake-Bena got rolling with an 11-0 run once its usual starters took the floor. Junior Kaydin Lee hit a 3-pointer and threw down a dunk in the burst, scoring five of his game-high 28 points. The Panthers extended the run, taking a 27-19 lead.
“We started playing pressure defense,” Lee said. “We started playing on our man and sticking to our man. We stopped helping so much and stuck with our guys.”
Cass Lake-Bena caught fire offensively in the second half. The trio of Lee, Kingsley Whitebird and Dominic Staples-Fairbanks combined for 58 points on the night, pushing the Panthers to a convincing win.
“It’s really fun when we start going like that because no one can stop us,” Lee said. “When we’re not missing, and I’m dunking it, it’s all fun out there. I just need Kingsley to get a dunk now. That was the only thing we were missing tonight.”
Lee is right. When the Panthers bring their best, few teams in Class A can slow them down. They just haven’t had their best when it’s mattered most. This March is an opportunity to rewrite four years of sour history.
“We’re going to show up and play our game,” Lee said. “We’re going to show people what we can do. They’ll see.”
No team will have a Section 8A title banner delivered to them on a silver platter. Despite the Panthers being the front runners as the QRF’s No. 2 Class A team, opponents like Sacred Heart (23-4, No. 10 in QRF), Fosston (20-5, No. 12), Warren-Alvarado-Oslo (23-3, No. 14) and Ada-Borup-West (17-8, No. 17), all have the goods to make a run.
“We just didn’t keep our composure in the end of those games,” Wind said of the previous three section championships. “Throughout the year this year, we’ve played some tough games. We kind of pulled those out because we kept our cool, and the kids didn’t give up. When we lost to Nevis and Fosston (this year), we didn’t play very well, but we still had chances to win those games.”
If the Panthers are fortunate enough to represent Section 8A in the Twin Cities later in March, there’s no doubt they’ll be battle-tested. They will not only have survived the northern Class A gauntlet but will also have wins over state title contenders in Cherry (19-4, No. 4) and Henning (23-1, No. 11) during the regular season.
“You have to win four games to go to state, and if you get there, you have to win three more,” Wind said. “They’re potent enough to do something (at state) if they get there. They can turn those finals losses into something positive. They’re prepared. We’re ready to go. It just comes down to doing it out there on the court. It’s up to them how this ends.”
Lee is one of the players who has only heard stories about competing for a state championship. His brother, TrayVaughn, was there in 2018 when the Panthers beat Ada-Borup-West 66-53 to win their seventh section title as a co-op program.
“I’ve been on the team the last four years,” Lee said. “The year before I was on varsity, they went to state, and my brother was on that team. I saw how fun it was for him down there and all the memories he’s told me. I need to do that. I need to make my own memories. … I would represent this school like no other at state. I love this school. I love these people.”
Cass Lake-Bena 85, Blackduck 73
CLB 36 49 – 85
BD 32 41 – 73
BLACKDUCK –Stroeing 22, Kortuem 19, Frank 14, Arp 10, Kingbird 6, Flatness 2.
CASS LAKE-BENA – K. Lee 28, Whitebird 16, Staples-Fairbanks 14, Graves 8, White 5, Boswell 4, Reyes 4, Coss 3, Brown 2, T. Lee 1.