BISMARCK — All season, West Fargo head boys basketball coach Adam Palczewski said he’d bet on his players every game. Even when the Packers lost three games in a two-week span after they started the season 11-0, his confidence in his group never wavered.
It didn’t Saturday, either, when the odds were stacked against the third-seeded Packers during the Class A boys basketball state semifinal. West Fargo was down by nine points at one point during the second half against East No. 1 seed West Fargo Sheyenne.
Palczewski believed all 36 minutes, and it paid off.
The Packers upset two-time defending East Region champion Sheyenne 78-73 to advance to the state championship for the first time since 2016. West Fargo plays West No. 1 seed Minot for a state title at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the same opponent that edged them in overtime in 2016.
“I’m pushing all my chips to the middle one more time,” Palczewski said.
The decibel meter was at peak value inside Bismarck Event Center as the Packers and Mustangs took the court for the all-West Fargo semifinal. Packers junior Carson Hegerle erupted for a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds. He also had four steals.
Six-foot-3 junior guard Hegerle scored a number of ways with highlight-reel athleticism Saturday. His grandpa, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, was in the back of his mind as he carried out a monster performance that sealed the semifinal win over Sheyenne.
“He couldn’t make it today. He’s in the hospital,” Hegerle said. “I’ve been playing for him. He watches every game. He used to come to every game he could. He’s one of my biggest supporters, for sure.”
But his grandpa didn’t miss any of the game. He watched the Packers get some payback over the team that handed them an 87-81 loss — its first loss of the season — in late January.
“It feels amazing. Our whole team had motivation coming into it,” Hegerle said. “We wanted it.”
The Mustangs entered the semifinal with a 24-game win streak. Sheyenne hadn’t dropped a game since its season-opening loss to West Fargo, which was also responsible for its last loss.
Sheyenne boasts a potent offense that steamrolled its way to the state tournament. By all accounts, the Mustangs seemed poised to reach the podium.
“Hats off to Sheyenne. They are so good. We had to play the best we could play to beat them tonight, so hats off to those guys,” Palczewski said. “(Jacksen) Moni, (Jah’Heem Leake) and (Gage Anderson). They battled just as hard as our guys. We just ended up being ahead when time ran out.”
Moni went 7-for-11 from the floor and knocked down 6 of 8 free throws to lead his team with 20 points. He also added six rebounds. Leake tallied 13 points and nine rebounds.
Sheyenne senior Barika Kpeenu posted 19 points on 67% shooting from the field (6-of-9). Kpeenu went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line and 75% from 3-point range.
It was a back-and-forth affair from the opening tipoff. The teams exchanged baskets for the first 16 minutes, staying within two possessions for the entire first half, until Hegerle pushed the fold to mount the largest lead of the half at 32-27 with six straight points.
Sheyenne responded with six of its own unanswered points. The spurt was capped by Kpeenu, who hit a 3 at the buzzer to escape with a narrow 1-point halftime lead (33-32).
The Mustangs grabbed an early nine-point lead in the second half at 39-48 on a Ben Manson 3-pointer. They maintained the advantage for 11 minutes until they saw it slip away in the second half.
“We just weren’t going to give up. I thought we were the stronger team tonight,” Hegerle said. “We wanted the championship. That’s what we came here to do.”
Four players put together a 15-0 run to vault West Fargo to a 65-57 lead. Packers senior Carter Birrenkott accounted for six of those. Birrenkott put up 19 points and eight rebounds, while knocking down all six of his free throws.
West Fargo senior Joel Pease made clutch plays down the stretch for the Packers. He added 12 points and knocked down 3 of 4 free throws.
“That’s who we are. We are a fighting team,” Palczewski said. “We’ve had multiple comebacks in the second half this year. Our guys have a lot of heart and they trust each other. You can’t do the stuff we’re doing without trust. I’m really proud of them for how they came together again tonight for a big win.”
West Fargo went to a full-court press in the second half and got 20 points from turnovers. The Packers limited Sheyenne to just four second-chance points.
Kpeenu hit a 3 to make it a four-point game with 49.6 seconds left, but the Packers held off all comeback attempts. The teams traded free throws to close out the game.
Half: West Fargo Sheyenne 33, West Fargo 32
WF: Hegerle 28, Birrenkott 19, Pease 12, Limke 9, Nelson 6, Grefsrud 2, Carlson 2.
WFS: Moni 20, Kpeenu 19, Leake 13, Anderson 10, Manson 8, Nhial 3.