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Patriots end Eskomos' season again

Cuinn Berger has sunk plenty of hoops as part of his impressive prep basketball career, but the Esko senior shotmaker said Pequot Lakes' percentages last week were hard to think about even for him.

Defending their Section 7AA throne, the Patriots made it back-to-back titles after netting an impressive 58-percent of their shot attempts against the Eskomos Friday en route to a 77-59 victory before a standing room only crowd at Hermantown High School.

If that weren't enough, Pequot Lakes didn't miss a single free-throw, canning a perfect 21-for-21 before again cutting down the nets.

"They played out of their minds," said Berger of the Patriots, who made 18 more free throws than Esko's three - the exact difference in the final score. "We can hang our heads, but it's tough to beat anyone who plays that well. They played a heck of a game."

It was Berger and Co. that came out of the game gates quickly in a rematch of last year's final (which Pequot Lakes won 58-50). Sporting a 28-14 advantage with 7 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first half, the fast-paced Eskomos looked poised to avenge last year's loss.

The seasoned Patriots had other ideas.

A basket here, another there and the 14-point lead vanished, with the Patriots (25-6) capping their 22-8 run with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Eli Laposky to tie things at 36-all by halftime.

Laposky, who will play at Division II Bemidji State next year, was also the one to nail a wild, circus-like, fall-away 3-pointer at the horn in Esko on Feb. 7 to shock the Eskomos 66-63.

"They hit some tough shots," said Esko head coach Derek Anderson. "These big games bring out high-quality basketball, and they were up for it."

A second-half show is exactly what the crowd of 1,500-plus fans got. For the opening 10 minutes, Esko and Pequot Lakes - both teams featuring next-level college athletes - played point for point.

Then, tied at 47-47 with 8:31 to play, the Patriots went on a 9-0 spurt, closed by a pair of Laposky free throws. Following a basket by Esko's Koi Perich to make it 56-49, Pequot Lakes ran off the next 11 points, ending - fittingly - on a pair of Laposky freebies to stretch out their largest lead of 67-49 and never look back.

The 20-2 run sent the St. Patrick's Day-themed Patriots students into a frenzy, as Laposky led the way with his arms, pumping them up and wearing a smile that never left.

"I feel like I'm dreaming right now," said Laposky, the 6-foot-2, do-it-all guard who finished with a game-high 23 points. "We knew it was going to be us two from the start of the season. Us and Esko. I tip my hats to them. They're a great team. To beat them twice is surreal."

Pequot Lakes head coach Rich Spiczka agreed, noting they had to do their best to stay within range of the high-octane Eskomos.

"They're like thoroughbreds," said Spiczka of Esko. "If you let them get out in front of you, they're really hard to catch. They're so talented and athletic."

Still, Spiczka's bunch - which traveled over 1,500 miles on six trips to Hermantown over the last two section tournaments - found a way to catch them.

Bus legs never became an issue for the Patriots. Spiczka said they've been improving daily since a 25-point loss at Detroit Lakes Jan. 17, winning 19 games straight since then.

"We got a lead, we thought we could spread them out, and it kind of took care of itself," said Spiczka between photos with family, friends and supporters while wearing the net around his neck.

Anderson concurred, adding that the Patriots' zone extended higher in the second half once they went ahead, forcing Esko to fire shots from farther than they did in the opening 18 minutes.

"We did a nice job in the first half - we were passing the ball, moving well and attacking the middle, but in the second, we went away from that," said Anderson, closing his fifth season at the helm. "It got away from us there."

Four Patriots found double digits in another title run.

Perich paced the Eskomos with a team-high 16 points. The junior fouled out with 38 seconds to play, and sat on the far baseline of the floor following his exit.

Right behind him, Berger scored 15 points, while sophomore Sam Haugen had 14 in a season-ending loss that saw Esko finish 25-4, one step short of the state tournament for a second straight year.

The last time Esko qualified for the state's pinnacle event was 2019.

"It's certainly the expectation. Anything short of that is not what we want," Anderson said. "It's definitely a mental game. Now it's about getting that back and getting where we want to be - and that's at the state tournament."

With Perich, Haugen and fellow Eskomo starters Dalton Spindler and Braedyn Male coming back next year, that may happen.

"We have some big shoes to fill," said Anderson of his four graduates: Berger, Carter Zezulka, Adam Rudnicki and student manager Cale Haugen. "Those guys did a good job of leading us. But I think we should have a lot of guys who are ready to step up and cherish that opportunity."

Berger, a three-year starter who has "aspirations" of playing college ball but is still undecided on next year, said he cherished his time in blue and gold like no other.

No surprise, as his father, Matt, is an assistant coach for the Eskomos girls program, while he has three younger sisters - Cadence (junior), Cairin (freshman) and Camberie (sixth grade) - who all play ball, too.

"Basketball definitely holds a special spot in my life," said Berger. "I'll play it for my whole life."

Berger's older brother, Camden, a 2019 Esko graduate on their last state tournament team, scored 1,082 career points.

Cuinn, however, upped him by 13, tallying 1,095 in his prep tenure.

"So, I beat him," Cuinn said with a grin.

Brotherly love aside, Cuinn couldn't have spoken any prouder of his time with his buddies playing a sport he so adores dearly.

"Not everyone gets the opportunities that I was given here," Berger said. "I just feel fortunate to have excelled in this program."

Update: Unseeded Pequot Lakes fell to No. 2 seed Albany 69-53 in the Class AA state quarterfinals Tuesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

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