MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The grandeur of his team’s accomplishment sank in as Jesse Kieper walked to the Springfield bench late in the closing minutes of the Class 1A title game on Saturday.
“When I subbed out, I knew that we had won the state championship,” the senior guard said after his team beat top-ranked Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 70-58. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”
Kieper scored 25 points and Dillon Schultz added 17 to lead the Tigers to their first-ever boys’ Class 1A basketball title — and they did it against the last undefeated team in Minnesota. The No.8-ranked Tigers (26-3) won in their first trip to the championship game thanks to a 23-12 run over the final five minutes.
“I don’t think anybody in the state of Minnesota thought that we were going to pull off the upset, but we love being the underdogs,” Kieper said outside the Target Center locker rooms.
Kevin Kuefler led the Jaguars (32-1) with 20 points. But BBE struggled mightily from 3-point range (2 for 27) and the free-throw line (2 for 11) while committing 14 turnovers. As shot after shot clanged off the rim, the Jaguars bench grew noticeably anxious, with several players covering their faces as the minutes ticked away on their would-be perfect season.
“Our three-point shooters, they’re instructed to keep taking it,” Jaguars coach Dave Montbriand said, noting his team has struggled from the perimeter all season. “They just never did start dropping. They just never did. … Just on guts alone, we hung in there.”
The teams traded runs — and the lead — throughout much of the game. BBE trailed by only one at halftime despite missing all nine of its 3-point attempts and all four free-throw attempts in the first half.
The Jaguars stayed close by outworking Springfield on the boards — in the first half, they grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to the Tigers’ 4. BBE took a 36-33 lead midway through the second half before Springfield called a timeout and responded with a 14-5 run that gave them the lead for good.
Kuefler’s basket with 5:36 to play pulled the Jaguars to 47-46, but the Tigers scored eight unanswered points and the Jaguars never came closer than five the rest of the way.
“You get to be 32-0 or whatever they were and all of a sudden, the pressure gets to you,” Tigers coach Lance Larson said. “And as the game stayed closer, the longer it stayed closer, the better chance we had, because they’ve got the world riding on their shoulder there. You come to a venue like this and maybe you just don’t shoot well.”
Kuefler wiped away tears after accepting the runner-up trophy. More tears were shed in the Jaguars locker room afterward.
“We had a good talk and it was hard for me to get the words out,” Montbriand said. “I told them that it’s going to get better, day by day. It’s going to hurt. … It’s going to be a two, three, four-week ordeal, maybe longer. But it’s going to get better every day. It’s going to get better every day. It’s not going to be better tomorrow, maybe.”
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