BEMIDJI -- With 2:21 left in the fourth quarter Pillager Huskies senior forward Mitch Steffen flew in front of his Ulen-Hitterdahl opponent to steal an errant pass.
Senior forward Eric Fornshell battled against a taller defender, grabbed a rebound and a scored his last basket at 1:07 in the final frame of the Section 6, Class 1A championship at Bemidji State University Friday.
Freshman Travis Dixon pounced on a loose ball with 35.7 and caused a turnover. With 12.8 seconds remaining senior guard Tony Mason, playing injured, created another turnover.
All this happened while U-H fans were celebrating their first trip to the state boys' basketball tournament because the game was out of reach. The Spartans eliminated the Huskies 69-57.
"They're never going to quit," said Pillager coach Jim Bentson about his team. "That's what is so fun about these guys.
"If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that we would get here, I would have laughed at you. I literally would have. No. 1 seed, (Park Region) Conference champions, I would have laughed."
It's not exactly what Pillager did after the loss. There weren't any tears, just sunken heads and a few shrugs of the shoulders. Senior center Mark Gaalswyk had a streak of four-straight state tournaments snapped, but he didn't appear too down.
"It's been a fun ride," said Gaalswyk who scored 11 points. "It was fun to play with these guys and come this far.
"If you would have told me last year how far we were going to get, I would have been happy with this. We finished 21-9, that's a good record. It's tough to lose but they're a good team."
The Spartans opened the third quarter with a flurry. Already up 32-25, U-H began the third with a 15-0 run. Pillager didn't attempt a shot until 6:27 in the third and didn't make a basket until Fornshell, who finished with 16 points, scored at 4:29.
"They took the momentum and they just ran with it," said Bentson. "We didn't know what to do.
"It's just unfortunate because we didn't come out and execute right away. We're a better ball club than that, but we've done that this year, where we turn the ball over like that.
"Bottom line is turnovers did kill us."
Applaud the Spartan defense, which held Pillager to 37 percent (23-62) shooting and created 18 Pillager turnovers -- nine in the third quarter. The Spartans size advantage also created second chance points for the West Subsection's top seed.
"They were a rough team," said Gaalswyk. "When you have to battle a 6-foot-9, a 6-5 and another 6-6 kid coming off the bench its tough to play down low. They made it tough for me to say the least."
Ben Stoll led Pillager with 18 points. But it was the senior leadership that helped Pillager maintain a competitive edge until the very end.
"You can't replace them," said Bentson about his seniors. "I said that last year with the four we lost then. You can't replace these guys. Regardless if they struggled from the field or not, it was their senior leadership and intensity. They're going to be tough to replace.
"We're going to have work hard in the offseason to get back here again next year."
Ulen-Hitterdahl 12 20 22 15 -- 69
Pillager 7 18 8 24 -- 57
Brandon Wang 15, Tom Lunde 6, Cody Abdo 5, Jordan Grafsgaard 13, Kirby Jacobson 23, Steve Green 5, Brady Schultz 2. Team totals: FG 24-49 (49 percent), FT 12-15 (80 percent).
Ben Stoll 18, Mitch Steffen 2, Eric Fornshell 16, Mark Gaalswyk 11, Travis Dixon 2, Luke Gaalswyk 2, Luke Kavanaugh 6. Team totals: FG 23-62 (37 percent), FT 11-22 (50 percent). Overall -- 21-9.
3-point baskets -- P 0, UH 5 (Wang 3, Jacobson 1, Green 1). Fouled out -- UH-Schultz.
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