After a stunning come-from-behind victory Feb. 23, the 16th-seeded Blair boys basketball team loaded its bags onto an Adventure charter bus Friday for a cross-state trip to No. 1 Alliance.
Cheerleaders and girls basketball players lined the sidewalk, youngsters held up signs and parents wished the Bears well on their way.
“This is amazing,” junior Luke Ladwig said. He'd clinched BHS' Class B-1 District Final appearance with a last-second free throw. “This is more than we probably could have ever expected or guessed. This means a lot.”
Morgan Rump, a senior, didn't mind the drive with a state trip on the line.
“To spend 6.5 hours with these guys, there's no one else I'd rather do it with,” he said.
The bus ride home couldn't have been too bad either.
Coach Chris Whitwer's squad upset the top-seeded Bulldogs (19-5 overall), turning a 15-0 third-quarter run into a 51-43 victory. With their fourth win in eight days, the Bears (11-11) clinched their school's first state tournament trip since 2006. They'd lost six straight — a skid that lasted from Jan. 15 to Feb. 19 — before the 4-0 run.
“This team has felt different the entire season,” Rump said before the trip out west. “It didn't always show through the games and the way we played, but, just at practice and everything, it just felt different. I had a good feeling about it.”
Ladwig believed BHS had a chance to be special, too.
“I always knew we could get here, but we would have to play real well,” he said, standing next to the bus in a cluster of his teammates. “And we did just that.”
The Bears did it again Saturday in Alliance. Down 11-3 after one period, they bounced back with a 16-point second, pulling within 22-19 at the break.
From there, BHS dominated. It poured back out onto the floor and took what it wanted — one of eight spots at the Class B State Championships.
“We just knew we had to weather the storm,” Whitwer said Saturday night.
Senior Cade Ulven turned the Bears' first second-half possession into a 3-point bomb.
“I was standing right behind him and you could tell when it left his finger tips it was going down,” Whitwer said.
The shot tied the score at 22 before Ladwig gave the road team a two-point lead, finishing a baseline-to-baseline effort with a layup.
Ulven splashed another 3-pointer next, forcing Alliance's first timeout of the quarter with just 1:40 off of the clock. The 8-0 start put BHS ahead 27-22 and it wasn't done.
Once play resumed, Ladwig's drive pushed the scoring streak to 10 before an inside Ulven bucket helped it to 12. Rump's corner 3 ran it to 15-0 and a 34-22 lead.
The Bears were in firm control and wouldn't let loose. Jacob Czapla hit a 3-pointer during the early stages of the fourth before two Kip Tupa free throws pushed a late six-point lead to eight with just 20 seconds left. Ladwig added two more foul shots and then Blair celebrated.
“I couldn't be happier for these guys,” Whitwer said.
Earlier, Alliance's public address announcer pleaded with the crowd to avoid storming the court at the buzzer, leaving the Bears to celebrate on their own, pumping fists and jumping into each other's arms. They cut down the nets and celebrated their school's seventh-ever state tourney berth and, likely, its most improbable.
When asked if his team had any magic tricks left after ripping a comeback win from Bennington earlier in the week, Ladwig grinned behind his COVID-19 mask as his team loaded the bus.
“We might have a couple more up our sleeve,” he said Friday with nearly 400 miles ahead of his team.
The next day, Ulven led Blair with 14 points. Ladwig had 10 and Rump added eight in a district finals victory.
The 11-11 Bears were one of four Eastern Midlands Conference teams to clinch their state spots Saturday. Projections suggest they'll face one of them — Norris — March 9 or 10 during the first round in Lincoln.
Going into state competition, Whitwer's team is focused and working for one another.
“It's been nothing but eye contact and head nods,” the coach said, noting the players' buy-in. “Before it was words, a thought and a dream.”
Now, the Elite 8 is BHS' reality.