BY AARON PATTERSON
Win and you’re in. That’s all the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils had to do to secure their spot in this year’s BSN Basketball Classic.
Coming off a win over Watseka, the Blue Devils entered the night session on Friday needing only to defeat Clifton Central to remain undefeated in pool play, and have an opportunity to take on Vermilion Valley Conference rival Salt Fork in tonight’s championship game at Heritage. But an uncharacteristic performance by the Blue Devils, and a dominant performance by the Comets left Bismarck-Henning with a 61-51 loss, and created a four-way tie for the top spot with the Comets, Watseka Warriors, and the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers.
Each team finished pool play with only one loss, and free-throw percentage ultimately became the deciding factor for final day seeding. Clifton Central will now play for tonight’s championship while Bismarck-Henning went from title-game hopefuls, to simply hoping to finish the tournament in seventh place.
“It’s a big disappointment,” Bismarck-Henning senior guard Austin Toler said. “I thought we were going to go to the championship, or at least play for third or fourth. Now we’re going for (seventh). It’s mind boggling.”
The loss ended a seven-game winning streak for a Blue Devils that was playing with plenty of confidence and momentum, but began Friday’s game against Clifton Central like a team struggling to get going.
The Comets led by 13 at the halftime break, and there was little the Blue Devils could do to fix their shooting woes. Bismarck-Henning made only eight baskets in the first half, and trailed by as many as 14 in the game. But as bad as it might have seemed, life was sparked into the Blue Devils squad by Toler who aided in a 10-0 run to end the first half.
“We let them jump out to a big lead and they were hot,” Bismarck-Henning interim head coach Jon Clapp said. “I think we got away from playing team basketball. We tried to get a little too much individual one-on-one instead of playing team basketball and reversing it and getting good looks out of that. I think we just kind of lost our way a little bit tonight.
“Defensively, we didn’t do very well in the zone. We weren’t getting out and pressuring it like we had been, so we switched over to man. I was surprised how well we played. We haven’t played a lot of man this year, but we played pretty well and we made a little run. We got back in the game and then made a few mental errors and let them get more point differential on us. We just couldn’t get back into it after that.”
The Blue Devils reduced their deficit to single digits with three minutes, 48 seconds remaining in the contest for the first time since early in the second quarter. Dustyn Ingram came off the bench to score seven points, all off of turnovers in the fourth quarter and pulled Bismarck-Henning to within 49-42 on a three-pointer with 1:53 to go. But that was as close as it would get, and the Blue Devils watched as their title hopes drifted away.
“It’s disappointing,” Clapp said. “I thought we were playing well enough to do it. But, give it to Clifton Central. They’re a good team. When you go 19 of 19 from the free throw line, it makes it difficult. We missed 12 free throws. That’s kind of the difference in the game there. Give all the credit to them. They did what they had to do to win the game. They shot the ball real well and they defended hard. They’re a good team, and they deserved to win tonight.”
Bismarck-Henning’s Wilde Garowski scored 13 points and had 11 rebounds while Toler finished with 14 points. The Blue Devils will take on Heritage today at 1 p.m.