Sofawolf Stadium buzzed with excitement as Dakota’s fans cheered at the top of their voice for the return of their team for Game 7 – the Bikers coming back to Sioux Falls after a hard-fought game in Honolulu pushed the series to the decider. Very few pundits had predicted such an outcome: the defending champions having proven their might by the easiness with which they got past Alaska and San Jose, while the visiting Kahunas experienced a rather tortuous path to the Conference Finals as they beat the Voyageurs in 6 (after having been down 2-1) and the Spectrums in 7.
Clearly, the big game-changer came with the injuries that hampered the home team. A first blow to Dakota’s chances came in the middle of Game 2, when Benjamin Durby (Fallow Deer, C/F) was forced out of the court after a hard tussle with Zack Tate (Zorilla, F/C) left him with an injured thigh; later on in Game 3, the same happened to his reserve Xavier Saffiren (Greyhound, C), whose paw was literally crushed by the weight of Scoonie Barrett (Otter, F/C) falling over the lanky canine as he aggressively dove over him for a loose ball. Likewise, 6th fur Roni Fulton (Raccoon, G) was struggling with a stiff ankle, memory of a bad crossover in the dying minutes of Game 5.
The dynamic duo of Matthew Silvius (Long-tailed Weasel, G) and Jonathan Lawyer (Meerkat, F/G), so far the main factor keeping Dakota in the series with stellar performances in every game, displayed the familiar confidence as the team stepped out on the court – Dylan Redfield (Red Deer, F) taking again his starting spot at small forward, while Mika Mishima (Tanuki, F/C) slid to center and rookie Duncan Kuqi (Stoat, F) got another chance to prove himself at PF. Silvius himself shot daggers at the visitors ever since Thursday’s post-game conference in Honolulu. “We’re not letting Hawaii steal this series,” he declared to the press. “Despite having our frontcourt all sidelined, we won Game 5 and kept 4 and 6 pretty close. We’ve figured out how to beat them, and we’ll get to show it in front of our fans.”
Having started the series with nothing to lose, the Kahunas had grown to believe an upset was possible – if not probable – after their 125-122 win in front of their crowd allowed them to tie the series and postponing its fate to a single knock-out game in Sioux Falls. Scoonie Barrett (Otter, F/C), the MVP of Game 6, arrived on the court ready to take victims as he ditched his usual footwear to tackle the game bare-pawed. Far from the first time for the big mustelid but still a rarity, the occurrence didn’t fail to remind everyone of how big the stakes were. The otter had made it clear before tip-off, too. “Any outcome other than us winning is simply unacceptable to me,” he said. “This team’s got all the tools to get it together and take the W. As long as we hold [Silvius and Lawyer] back, we got a lot more than a fighting shot.”
And as such, with a heavily black and white crowd, the tipoff began and the clock started running at Sofawolf, with the big otter practically wrestling the ball from Mishima. A quick pass to point guard and Most Improved Player candidate Jona Vastenhout (Beech Marten, G) permitted the away team to run away with the first blood. This one shot set the mood for the night to come.
Many eyes were set in the Mustelid Michigan University matchup, with Dakota strategically, but many say cheekily, pitting Duncan Kuqi (Stoat, F) against Barrett, arguably the largest name to come out of the institute; which Kuqi made no secret about admiring heavily. Regardless of the fact, the lutrine steamrolled against the rookie on every chance he could, driving the hard contact points to almost the point of foul.
With Dakota, there was no secret that both Silvius and Lawyer would focus trying to get around Hawaii's frontcourt in order to score an impressive amount of points from the get go. In the blink of an eye, the Splash Bros. managed to cut out whatever lead Hawaii managed to get away with, sinking key three-pointers precisely when needed. However, when Vastenhout and Cross-Kiraly swapped for a more pass-score plan instead of a purely shooting approach, it managed to let the away team nip at the heels of the final spot. But just as the third quarter loomed to an end, Redfield managed to make Warren Doyle foul out, leaving a big dent on Hawaii's starter line. Amusingly, it was reported that Mange and Cross-Kiraly debated in French out of superstition after the fact, as the white wolf and Norwich IV were soon to take position in the court.
It seemed it was going to be the same story of other close games, with Dakota igniting enough to take it all in the fourth quarter. But no, not this time. Every vein was bulging over Barrett's body, not wanting to be this one the Kahunas' swan song, making sure everyone was in the plan for the timeout they called and reserved for this occasion.
The otter let his heavy frame hit the rim with enough force to rattle it, equalizing the score in the process at 115 apiece; everyone sure the lutrine would had to pay a fine for damaging equipment. The Bikers did not have much wiggle room to do anything after that play, taking them out of their mojo enough to fumble a pass and let the clock run out. The game was not over yet; the calvary for both teams would go on for extra time. Chests were heaving, hearts were beating, emotions ran wild. On the Bikers' side, you could see Durby and Saffiren borderline itching to get out there. On the Kahunas’, the saluki let a towel drape over his face, shaking off the thrill and readying for the next go.
With everyone on the stadium, and across the Pacific Ocean, on their edge of their literal seats, the whistle rang for the overtime period - and almost immediately, lightning struck at Sofawolf: Silvius' attempt to steal the ball off of Mange was met with a foul call, to the heavy boos and jeers of the audience. The MVP candidate was effectively fouled out. Fear was exposed from the Bikers' air of invincibility for a split second, and the Kahunas detected it.
Julian opened the score with a big three pointer, followed by a Michigan hassle between Barrett and Kuqi, making the stoat rank up his six fouls and being forced to sit down for the remainder of the game; the argument with the referees going on for what seemed for an eternity, as the otter was sent on the line for two, making one of them.
With the Kahunas ranking up the points, Redfield and Lawyer went into overdrive, with the deer forcing himself and going on the line as much as he could, with different results each time, but effectively inching the score closer and closer. Dylan kept on bullying Vastenhout, racking up his turnovers and getting the points in the process. Regardless, Cross-Kiraly and Barrett kept the score as distant as they could, but it could only be so long after the Bikers' replied with threes and foul calls on their favor.
With practically seconds to spare at 129-126 for Hawaii - and Dakota needing a successful play to steal the victory -Lawyer let his instincts take control and drove towards the basket with an alley-oop attempt, making rough contact with Tate, getting the foul call he wanted and going for two. But as he looked up, heartbreak set in the stadium, with the ball rolling out of the basket. At 0.5 seconds to end and the possession to go to the Kahunas after this, the math was starting to settle in the players' heads.
Even with Lawyer's successful free throws and getting the game to 129-128, the game was done by a single point, with Cross-Kiraly letting the shot clock burn out and signal what many thought impossible: The Bikers, the #1 team of the season, knocked out by the Hawaii Kahunas, who were on their way to their first ever FBA finals in their current iteration. The entirety of the islander team ran to the stadium and huddled in one big and loud cheer. This was it. Sofawolf was held silent other than one or two scattered cheers by some dedicated or daring fans, but to little care for the winners, who could not reach their opponents in time, disappearing from the tunnel, taking the cue to ready up for their post-game interviews.
"This is not just us, this is ours, this is the whole Kahuna collective..." the Kahunas' captain spoke to the flock of journalists. "Six years in the making, and we have cracked the code." he smiled, his breathing still pronounced due to the obvious adrenaline spike, antsy as he shifted his lutrine bulk on his seat.
"To think Dakota was the first ever team I ever looked up when I was a kid, and that it had to go through this it's..." Julian tried to explain, but lost track over a bliss of laughter afterwards. "Being on a team with these furs and making it on this circumstance, like I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Despite what they've been through, Dakota's been all that was shown and then some..." Vastenhout laughed. "I am so happy for this new team, and Silvius is no joke..."
The Kahunas will sit and await which of the two Eastern teams they will face in the Big FBA Finals. Time will tell if the ones who toppled the champions will becomes champions themselves.