Pick your action and the Class AAAA Girls Basketball Championship game between top seeded Hopkins and No. 2 St. Michael-Albertville had it on Saturday, March 18th.
From thrilling runs that produced huge leads, to captivating comebacks that almost came to fruition, to dramatic moments when a one-point lead became precarious, St. Michael-Albertville emerged victorious against an opponent who was a nemesis for a long time. Before a celebration could begin to end what will long be remembered as an epic, the Knights had to kill 1.4 seconds before the clock with a half field pass to secure a 71-70 win over Hopkins in the Class AAAA championship game at the Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.
Defeating the Royals for the first time in a year, the Knights became the first school in Minnesota State High School League girls’ basketball history to win a championship in three separate enrollment classes: Class AA (2001), Class AAA (2009) and now the big school class. A year ago, Hopkins defeated St. Michael-Albertville in the AAAA championship game. The Royals’ championship continued throughout the Lake Conference season as they racked up two wins in a month. In fact, the last time St. Michael-Albertville defeated Hopkins was on December 8, 2015, but the Knights were part of the Mississippi 8 Conference.
But the Knights (29-3) cleared Hopkins’ latest hurdle when senior guard Tessa Johnson made two free throws with 7.6 seconds remaining to put St. Michael-Albertville ahead 71-67. The University of South Carolina recruit’s free throws were valuable as a turnover saw Hopkins pull back to a point after a three-pointer from senior guard Kelly Boyle.
Finally getting the clock to zero, Johnson pinned deep in Hopkins’ end and caught up a long, baseball-style pass to a scrum of players and the horn blared amid the scrum. Johnson finished the game with 27 points, had 10 rebounds and played all but 17 seconds of the game. Junior guard JaKahla Craft added 17 points, including 14 in the first half as the Knights built an impressive 21-point lead over the defending AAAA-class champions.
Hopkins (28-3) didn’t waver in the face of such a large deficit. The Royals, beating the Knights 45-29 in the second half, provided second-half turnovers and made baskets that reflected the dizzying pace that St. Michael-Albertville possessed in the first half. Senior guard Taylor Woodson had 21 points for the Royals and senior post NuNu Agara had 18 points and nine rebounds.
“Many thought that the Section 6AAAA Finals between Hopkins and Wayzata was for the state championship,” said Kevin J. Anderson, the league’s girls’ basketball historian. “That was not the case. What we just saw was an incredible championship game. The racing from the start, the way Hopkins played like a champ by not backing down, and the drama to the end, it truly was an epic title game. This reinvigorated girls’ basketball in Minnesota.”
At an incredibly frenzied pace in the first half, St. Michael-Albertville shot nearly 61 percent from the field and built a 42-25 lead. The Knights led by as much as 21 points, gaining an advantage through a mix of outside shots and short-range jumps and layups. On the other hand, Hopkins shot just 21.2 percent in the first half and St. Michael-Albertville grabbed 18 defensive rebounds.
Craft played all 18 minutes of the first half, delivering 14 points, four rebounds and three assists. She was 5 of 7 from the field, including 2 of 4 from three-point range. Johnson controlled the Knights amid the frantic back-and-forth with 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the first half.
Hopkins made a few moves to close the unusually large deficit, but the Knights had a response with timely baskets or key stops.
Woodson led the Royals by 11 points in the first half.