After Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa had impressive wins in its first two boys basketball state tournament games, the Jaguars looked like an overwhelming favorite to beat Springfield in the championship on Saturday.
After all, the Jaguars drubbed a solid MACCRAY team in the semifinals, while Springfield struggled to beat Chisholm in overtime in its semifinal contest. And when MACCRAY routed Chisholm on Saturday morning in the third-place game at Concordia University in St. Paul, it made the prediction of the outcome of the championship game seem like a no-brainer. After all, BBE was ranked No. 1 in Class A entering the postseason and was the only unbeaten team at the state tournament in any of the four classes.
BBE standout senior guard Kevin Kuefler said everything felt normal before the game. No one seemed overly nervous, ill or doubtful.
"It was just like the first two games," he reflected. "We were pumped up and ready to go. We all seemed confident that we would bring a title back home."
Springfield took control of the game early and refused to let BBE switch the momentum as it often did all season with a huge run.
But BBE had been behind before. In fact, the Jaguars were down 19-8 to MACCRAY in the semifinals, then calmly began to force turnovers with their trapping defense and went on a 25-3 run en route to a 86-69 victory. The Jaguars had won some close games during the season, but someone always managed to pull them out of the hole.
Not this time. Springfield would prevail, 70-58, to win its first state title.
No matter how you look at it, BBE played its worst game of the season just when it mattered most.
"I really can't explain it," said Kuefler. "It still hurts a lot. We couldn't make baskets inside, we couldn't hit from the outside and we could hit from the free-throw line. Not just one of us either. Almost all of us were off in that game."
Many coaches of teams heading into the postseason with unblemished records have remarked "off the record" that they wish they had suffered a loss late in the season so the team wouldn't have complacency problems. The thought was that his/her team needed to see how easy it can be to lose at the drop of a hat ... or at the drop of a three-pointer.
BBE coach Dave Montbriand was confident his team would not suffer that fate when asked about it right before the playoffs began.
"I don't worry about that with this bunch," he said. "They don't even think about being undefeated. They are so good at focusing at the job in front of them."
And his kids proved him right throughout the playoffs as the Jaguars steamrolled through four Section 6A opponents by an average of 27 points. And they won by 16 and 17 points in their first two state games.
But then it was if there was a power failure inside Target Center and the building was dark as BBE players couldn't find the basket in the championship. The Jaguars couldn't score on drives to the basket, couldn't find the hole from the free-throw line as evidenced by their 18-percent showing (2-for-11), and could only snap the cords from behind the three-point arc twice in 27 attempts (7 percent). And both three-pointers came late in the game when the outcome was virtually decided. In all, the Jaguars shot 34 percent from the field (27-for-80). All three stats were a season low.
"We definitely thought we could be state champs," said Kuefler. "It happened so fast. I don't know exactly what happened. Most teams had been playing man (defense) on us and Springfield used a 1-1-3 zone. We just never seemed to adjust to it."
Kuefler struggled to control his emotions following the game. He put a towel over his head as the final buzzer sounded. He bit his lip, he looked skyward, he bent over. Still, nothing could stop the tears from flowing. When he was named to the all-tournament team, he tried to smile with the other nine honorees as photographers snapped photos. But his eyes were red and swollen.
"It hurt so bad," he said. "I didn't really think we were going to lose until (Springfield) was hitting its free throws in the final minute. I look up at the clock and score and it hit me."
Montbriand wrote on a blackboard after the game: "Don't cry for the loss ... smile for the opportunity."
It made sense, but it didn't help. At least not at the time. And still not yet today.
"I understand that there are a lot of teams that would have traded places with us, just for the chance to play in the state tournament," Kuefler said. "But it still doesn't make us feel any better. At least not now. It's going to take time. Maybe when I look at it years from now. But just not right now."
BBE's slashing drives to the basket were nearly unstoppable all season. And it wasn't just one player that was proficient at it. Starters and reserves would keep the scoreboard operator busy by slicing through defenders en route to a layup or finger roll.
But Springfield had a roadblock. Or a wall, whichever way you want to look at it. The Tigers' Division I football recruit, Tyler Marz, didn't even look like a basketball player in his uniform. He looked like, well, like an offensive lineman. When BBE freshman Brian Goodwin was standing next to the 6-foot-8, 280-pound Springfield fortress during a timeout, Goodwin looked over at him and his head tilted upward, then tilted more until his eyes caught Marz's eyes. You could almost feel the young point guard swallow hard as he visualized what might occur if he were to take a charging foul from the behemoth.
Marz played well. He stood his ground, collected 12 rebounds and contributed seven points. But more importantly, he altered BBE's game.
"You couldn't move him," explained Kuefler, no slouch at 6-4 and 180. "I tried a couple of times and he just wouldn't budge."
So BBE tried its luck from the outside. But the shots just wouldn't fall. Normally when one BBE player has an off-night, someone picks them up with a hot hand. There was no one to pick them up on this night. It was as if they were all playing on ice.
Even Kuefler, who finished with 20 points and 20 rebounds, didn't find his rhythm during the course of the 36-minute battle.
"I didn't shoot well either," said the 1,000-point scorer, referring to his 10-for-25 slate. "I just don't have an answer for it."
While other BBE teammates have watched tape of the championship game, Kuefler has no desire to see it at this time.
"No matter how many times I look at it, we're still going to lose," he said, finally managing a chuckle.