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Barnum rolls to 5A championship

After taking off her sophomore season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Barnum's Allison Marine made the decision to return to the basketball court the following year because of her teammates.

And those Bomber mates are glad she did.

Marine scored a game-best 17 points and none bigger than when the now 6-foot-3 senior snagged an offensive rebound and made a putback to put Barnum up for good in their wild 44-42 win over Upsala in a Section 5A semifinal Tuesday night before a packed Hinckley-Finlayson gymnasium.

Marine, who also played through a bloody nose Tuesday, was all smiles by game's end, sharing plenty of hugs with a group that is dearest to her.

"I thought about the environment we have here at Barnum and how good we could be," said Marine, when weighing her decision to return to the hardwood as a junior. "The team was what put me through to play again. And, I am really glad I played - no regrets."

Barnum (25-4) now plays in their first section championship game since 2011, when they battle Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (24-4) for all the marbles at 7 p.m. Friday, March 10, at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

Should the Bombers win, it would be Barnum's first state tournament appearance since they won the Class A title in 2010.

"It hasn't sunk in too much yet," said senior Rayna Klejeski with a smile. "It's all just amazing. We have come so far."

Speaking of that, the Bombers needed to come quite a ways on Tuesday, as upset-minded Upsala - who stunned and eliminated top-seeded Braham the weekend before - was leading 22-15 after the opening 18 minutes.

Not only did the Cardinals keep the 6-foot Klejeski - bound for Division II Minnesota-Crookston next year - to just one field goal in the first half, but they also turned Barnum turnovers into points, grabbed plenty of offensive rebounds and were all over the floor.

With their tallest player listed at just 5-9, for what Upsala lacked in height, the Cinderella-story Cardinals surely made up with a relentless pursuit.

"We have worked hard every single day," said Upsala head coach Sara Bauer. "Every single minute."

Bauer was on the only-ever Upsala state tournament team in 2013 before graduating in 2015. The coach of her alma mater just 20 miles southwest of Little Falls, Minnesota said this winter was the first playoff win for the Cardinals in five years. Tuesday, they were just a single shot short of the section final.

"To get this far, I am incredibly proud," said Bauer, her squad led by Dakota Soltis' 11 points. "I can't ask for much more."

With Upsala playing with that toughness, third-year Barnum head coach Mariah Minkkinen didn't need long to address her Bombers during halftime.

"I was honest, we were out-hustled," she said. "We had to want it more and bring that energy."

They did that. Early in the second frame, Klejeski took her first charge of the season, drawing a smile from the next-level recruit as well as plenty of cheers from a rowdy student section.

Not long after, Barnum began sneaking back into the contest. A bucket here, a basket there and a never-give-in attitude kept them alive down the stretch.

"I watch a lot of college basketball. Teams can be down and just keep chipping away," said Klejeski. "I knew we could do this."

"We always had that hope," added Marine.

Tied at 40-40 with less than two minutes to play, it was Marine that pulled down a Klejeski-missed free throw and put it back up and in from the block with 1:50 left.

Suddenly, at 42-40, Barnum led for the first time since the game's opening possessions, sending the Bombers bench into a frenzy, led by coach Minkkinen's fist pump of praise.

"That was huge," said Minkkinen of Marine's go-ahead bank shot off the backboard.

Following the electric moment, the Bombers never looked back.

"It was do or die," said Marine. "I just wanted to get it and shoot it."

Both Marine and Klejeski were shooting a TikTok dance in the lobby afterwards, evidence of the joy following the biggest win in their prep careers.

Who could blame them? Marine netted a game-high and Klejeski added 14 points - 12 in the second half - while Janaya Jurek finished with eight, all after halftime.

"Everybody plays their part out there," said Klejeski of her team, which outscored Upsala 29-20 over the final 18 minutes.

"It really has been a team effort," added Minkkinen, who couldn't stop smiling. "It's been a fun journey to get to this point."

She's hoping that journey won't finish anytime soon. Mixed with a defensive focus and using their size to their advantage, the 25-win Bombers aren't a squad to overlook.

"We're going to do everything we can to come ready to go on Friday," said Minkkinen, a Division I player at Wisconsin-Green Bay during her collegiate days. "We want to keep going."

Marine said the squad is playing "phenomenal" and "playing their hearts out."

Klejeski agreed.

"We're not done yet," she said.

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