Mustangs fall to Century in their first state boys basketball title appearance
West Fargo Sheyenne's historic run came to an end.
Kemal Hajric wasn't shy about it. He was in pain. He injured his ankle in the state semifinals but wasn't going to be held from playing with his fellow Mustangs in the program's first state championship. He limped in the starting lineups, and he limped to get his participation trophy after the game. But with his career over, he'll better remember his teammates and the run to get there.
After getting to their first ever state championship, the Mustangs ran out of magic in the title game. West Region No. 1-seeded Bismarck Century proved too resilient and rebounded after losing in the state championship last year to beat East Region No. 1-seeded Sheyenne 63-56 for the North Dakota Class A boys basketball state championship on Saturday, March 10, at North Dakota State's Scheels Center.
"The love for these guys, they didn't give up on me all year so I'm not going to give up on them," Hajric said. "I'm going to play through everything I can."
The Mustangs nearly didn't get past the quarterfinals, but they scored 49 points in the second half to beat West Region No. 4 seed Bismarck St. Mary's 80-70 in the state quarterfinals on Thursday, March 8.
Hajric was four assists away from a triple-double. He shot 7-for-16 from the field and tallied 14 points and game highs of 14 rebounds and six assists. His rebounding output helped the Mustangs get 26 second-chance points.
"All the work we put into the season has finally paid off for us," Hajric said. "It's like an engine that's working at its peak. For us, it's just an amazing feeling. You can't help but smile about it."
Hajric said the Mustangs coaches promised that shots would eventually fall, and eventually they did. The Mustangs scored eight unanswered points in the first two minutes of the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers by Elijah Charles and a Christian Kuntz putback. Kuntz scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half as he, Hajric, Zach Westphal (18 points) and Tyler Terhark (13) finished with double-digit points for the Mustangs.
Keaton Ballestad hit Hajric with a highlight reel behind-the-back bounce pass for a fast-break bucket that led to the Mustangs going on an 18-6 run for a permanent lead.
"I just told them we're fine. I just told them we could erupt at any time," Kirchoffner said. "We just had to get the jitters out."
The Mustangs pulled out a 69-63 win over in-city rival East Region No. 3-seeded West Fargo in the state semifinals. The four-year history of the rivalry between West Fargo and Sheyenne has seen plenty of exhilarating contests, but none were with higher stakes. Beating the Packers for the second time this season was going to be a tall order, but Kuntz said the Mustangs wanted to prove themselves.
"We believed from the first day of practice. Nobody really believed in us," Kuntz said. "We went out and had to prove ourselves every game. That's how we got here."
The Mustangs held the Packers to their lowest scoring total of the season. The Packers shot 34 percent from the field, while the Mustangs shot 47 percent and 41 percent from 3-point range. The Mustangs also scored 13 points off turnovers.
The Mustangs scored 12 unanswered points down the stretch of the first half as Kuntz scored 10 of the Mustangs' first 26 points on their way to an eight-point lead at intermission. Kuntz finished with a team-high 23 points and two assists.
The Packers and Mustangs went back and forth after halftime, but the Mustangs got a lift from Westphal, their leading scorer. He totaled 11 points in the second half to end the game with 15.
Westphal and Kuntz said their team got an emotional lift by Hajric. The Mustangs go-to big man was hampered by an ankle injury but did everything he could to make it back onto the court. Hajric only scored three points but totaled a game-high 14 rebounds and gave the Mustangs a much-needed presence in the paint to propel the Mustangs to the win.
"We all love each other. I just wanted to keep it going," Westphal said. "We were really positive."
Kirchoffner, who played for Century, said he wanted to see the Patriots in the state championship. Sheyenne went on an 8-0 run to build up a lead midway through the first half. But after Kuntz scored on a backdoor cut with about 6:50 left in the first half, the Patriots held the Mustangs scoreless for about a five minute stretch and closed the first half on a 13-2 run.
Kuntz scored seven of Sheyenne's first 10 points in the second half, and a 3-pointer by Chuck Dubois cut Century's lead to six points with just under 11 minutes. But Century's sharpshooters were too much, and the Patriots shot 50 percent and 36 percent from 3-point range.
A Kuntz jumper with less than a minute to go again cut Century's lead down to six points at 60-54 with under a minute left, but the Patriots made enough free throws down the stretch to win.
"They're just a very good defensive team. We knew that going in," Kirchoffner said. "They don't have many weaknesses. We knew it would be a full game. It got down to the end there. I'm just proud of our guys."
With his high school basketball career over, Ballestad said he plans on going to NDSU for business. He said he learned to trust people and to develop relationships which prepared him for the real world.
"I wouldn't change anything," Ballestad said. "It's honestly a blessing playing with these guys, and I love them all. ... Playing basketball always brought me to a happy place, and I'm going to miss it dearly."
This was Century's third state championship and first since 2011, at which point Sheyenne didn't even have a basketball program yet. And while Kirchoffner said the Mustangs were written off to start this year, he believes the Mustangs should keep up this quick success.
"Obviously we wanted to get the first state championship in program history. We just couldn't get it done this year," Kuntz said. "Hopefully we'll be back next year and ready."
Abdi Sufi, West Fargo; Jake Kava, Fargo Shanley; Cole Gendreau, Bismarck St. Mary's; Trae Steckler, Mandan; Elijah Klein, Mandan; Christian Kuntz, West Fargo Sheyenne; Kemal Hajric, West Fargo Sheyenne; Zach Westphal, West Fargo Sheyenne; Kade Lynch, Bismarck Century; Kade Amundson, Bismarck Century; Josh Sipes (MVP), Bismarck Century.