The Cambridge-Isanti boys basketball team finished this season with a victory – and usually the only teams that end the year with a win are teams that win a state title.
Sadly, that is not the case for the Bluejackets.
C-I earned a state tournament berth by claiming a thrilling 81-73 win over Duluth East in the Class 4A Section 7 title contest played at Elk River Thursday, March 12.
But the squad’s chance to take the court at the Target Center and potentially claim that coveted state championship was frustrated by the concerns of transmission of the COVID-19 virus that caused the Minnesota State High School League to cancel the tournament and end the season.
“Tough to find the words that can describe the feelings that exist!” Cambridge-Isanti coach Mike McDonald said on Twitter soon after the announcement was made. “Heartbreak for my seniors knowing that I will not be able to coach them on the practice/game floor.”
The silver lining is that the Bluejackets’ final memory of the 2019-20 season will be unforgettable. The team claimed a hard-fought victory over Duluth East in a contest in which neither team held a lead larger than 9 points – a lead the Bluejackets built by scoring the first 7 points of the second half, only to see the Greyhounds respond with 8 straight points.
The star of the section championship game was C-I’s Henry Abraham, who scored 44 points. But as has been the case all season, the Bluejackets victory was a team effort, not an individual one.
“Henry had 44 tonight, but we don’t win if we only score 44 points. We had 80,” McDonald said after the victory. “Those other guys are just as important. Hunter Melander’s big steal and basket were huge, and Paul Swanson hit a big corner 3 late in the game. Those are big shots. And Connor Braaten hit some early 3’s to get our offense going, and Micah Ladd got to the rim as well.”
Abraham knows the Bluejackets are far from a one-man team.
“Micah helps to get people off me by creating his own shots,” Abraham said. “Ryan Cox can hit open shots, so that helps our offense, and Connor Braaten and Hunter Melander were knocking down shots tonight – and their rebounding has improved dramatically since the fall.
“We’ve been playing together forever. We need each other, and we trust one another.”
Duluth East coach Rhett McDonald, the son of C-I coach Mike McDonald, said his team’s game plan was to limit Abraham’s 3-point attempts, as well as those of his surrounding cast.
“Cambridge-Isanti has a bunch of shooters, not just Henry,” Rhett McDonald said. “In our first two games against them, we spent a lot of time trying to stop Henry – and a lot of the role guys did a lot of good stuff on the perimeter.”
As a result, the Greyhounds tried to guard Abraham with a single player, and the senior guard took advantage of the opportunity by driving to the basket and either scoring or getting fouled.
“What was going through my head was to try and get to the rim and make a play,” Abraham said. “That was available all night, and I was fine with that. They tried to take away my 3-point shots in the first two games we played them, so I thought they would try to do that again. But the lane was wide open all night.”
Abraham made just a single 3 versus Duluth East, but more than made up for that by making 12 other baskets, most of them coming on acrobating layups in the lane. He also connected on 17 of 19 free throws, including his final eight charity tosses in a row.
“Henry was really effective at getting to the rim and finishing,” Mike McDonald said. “That’s the best game he’s had all season in terms of finishing at the rim.”
But when it came to crunch time, Abraham’s supporting cast came through in support. Duluth East had a chance to take a lead when it tied the contest at 55-55, only to see the Bluejackets force a turnover that led to a 3-pointer by Swanson.
And with the score tied at 60-60 and less than five minutes to play, Melander stole the ball near midcourt for a layup, then connected on a 3 on Cambridge-Isanti’s next possession to give the Bluejackets the lead for good.
Melander had 14 points and Ladd added 11 to support Abraham and clinch the state tournament bid for the Bluejackets (24-4).
“To be able to earn the right to go to state in back-to-back years is really special,” Mike McDonald said. “If you think about it, we’ve gone to state in 1991, then 2008, then 2018. Your opportunities to go to state can be few and far between.”
And that’s why the decision to cancel this year’s state tournament clearly hurt the members of this year’s Bluejackets, at least judging by their Twitter feeds.
“One of the saddest days of my life. Thank you Cambridge-Isanti,” Abraham wrote on his Twitter feed on the day of the announcement. That thought was echoed by fellow seniors such as Swanson, who tweeted, “I’ve never been more devastated,” and Melander, who tweeted, “This is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt.”