|So here we are. Dakota Bikers versus Biloxi Voodoo.
Just by looking at them, this year’s FBA Finals look like a brilliant exercise in spotting similarities and differences. Dakota has won three championships in the past decade by gradually shifting their image from the hard-hitting, defensive-heavy, structure of the early ‘00s and capitalizing on the skill of superstars like Ryan Malone (Kangaroo, F); Biloxi, on the contrary, has experienced a 27-year long drought since Jeremiah Vanhorn (Flamingo, F) last led the Mudpuppies franchise to a title in 1991.
The Gulf Coast team mostly caters to prey species, while the Bikers has historically been (together with Montana) one of the strongholds of predator support – but at the same time this perception has severely shifted in the past few years, with Biloxi rebuilding the team around an all-predator “core three” of Sterling Bengtzing (Marbled Polecat, C/F), Lee Evans (Great Dane, F) and Craig Reinhardt (Black Panther, F/C) while Dakota did a lot to soften their image and rebrand themselves as a future-oriented franchise led by the dynamic duo of Jonathan Lawyer (Meerkat, F/G) and Matthew Silvius (Long-tailed Weasel, G), with controversial All-Star Dylan Redfield (Red Deer, F) gradually falling into a supporting role.
With a lot on the line ever since the first game of this series, Sofawolf Stadium was packed to the brim with a sold-out crowd eager to push the rejuvenated Bikers to their seventh ring. However, the Voodoo didn’t look one bit impressed at the heckles they received from the Dakota crowd as they stepped onto the court, displaying every ounce of the bravado that got this team past the valiant opposition of Queens, Tennessee and Bangor. Star center Sterling Bengtzing drew a finger over his lips as he turned to the crowd, of course provoking an angrier reaction from the thousands of rowdy fans who made the trip to Sioux Falls. Shortly after, the polecat scored first blood with a 15-feet fadeaway and repeated his gesture, really setting the tone for what was sure to become a vicious confrontation.
The game started off slow, both teams struggling to convert easy opportunities and alternating themselves in the lead as they studied each other. Tanya Feckle (Gerenuk, F/G) came strongly off the rails with an uncontested three-pointed from the right corner, as Bengtzing and Evans took quick control of the paint against a mismatched Dakota frontcourt. The Bikers didn’t take much to regroup, with Lawyer driving the white-and-black charge through longball after longball to help close the deficit any time Biloxi seemed to be able to gain the upper ground. The Voodoo ended the first quarter ahead by 1 but slowly started to lose control on the game in the second, with Benjamin Durby (Fallow Deer, C/F) proving unstoppable in the paint and Biloxi’s coach Lewis Lachler (Spotted Hyena) being forced to sub out Evans to avoid him foul trouble. With the Voodoo’s charismatic captain off the ground, the last minutes of play became a Dakota monologue – the home side heading back to the lockers ahead by 15 points, 67-52.
In the second half, Biloxi never saw an opportunity to cut the deficit – most of their players looking downright rattled as they grew to realize how quickly the first game of this series could slip through their fingers. Bengtzing was no match for Durby as the cervine dominated on both sides of the court, easily breaking the 20 points/20 rebounds mark way into the third quarter in what was undoubtedly one of the most dominating displays of strength in the history of FBA Finals. Samantha Canuteson (Orca, C/F) proved a dependable replacement for Durby in the paint, easily eclipsing the competition of Biloxi backup Trent Mosley (Elk, C/F) once the starters were briefly sat down.
Though the Voodoo gave some signs of life at the beginning of fourth quarter, the mountain to climb was far too steep for the visitors as Dakota never once relinquished their grasp on the game – easily winning Game 1 by a 23-point deficit, 132 to 109. Jonathan Lawyer was elected Player of the Game with 35 points (he hit nine from 3-point range, tying an FBA Finals record which belonged to Buck Hopper (Rabbit, G)), 4 rebounds and 4 assists, but his outstanding contribution was eclipsed by Benjamin Durby posting a monster performance of 28 points and 27 rebounds to cap a stellar showing from the 2018 Western Conference champions. Mika Mishima (Tanuki, F/C) was also in double-double range with 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Silvius finished right outside it with 23 points and 8 assists.
Among Biloxi’s camp the average feeling was dejection and hopelessness at a poor showing and a hard loss on the road to start the series with. The saving grace of the game was a strong performance by Craig Reinhardt (29 pts/11 ast) but even the panther couldn’t do much with both Lee Evans and 2018 FBA Rookie of the Year Kaspar Kuusik (Eurasian Lynx, G) being held under 10 points. In the post-game press conference, Biloxi’s canine captain didn’t try to sugar-coat the loss to the journalists. “We’ve lost a battle,” he admitted dejectedly to the press, “but we will play our hardest to make sure we don’t lose the war.”
We all know the Voodoo aren’t lacking the skills to bounce back. But after tonight, it definitely looks a whole lot tougher.