For Coach Kent Hamre, Gatorade Player of the Year Tessa Johnson and the St. Michael-Albertville Knights, it was always a matter of time.
How long until the first matchup against Hopkins? How many nights can we string together wins? How many days until the Section Tournament? How long until we see Hopkins, again, undoubtedly, in the State Championship?
While the theme for the season might have been “Unfinished,” the Knights might have taken a line from Lin Manuel Miranda – “Just you wait,” after walking off the court losers at the end of 2022. Hamre, seeing the grit and talent he had returning, had the feeling that coaches get – that it was a matter of time before STMA found its way back to the court at Williams Arena against the perennial power in Blue and White.
And come, it did.
It wasn’t without some tumult. Eden Prairie, who put their best foot forward at the end of the season (including a win over Chaska), made it a tough semifinal at the Class 4A Tournament last week after both the Eagles and Knights skated through the quarterfinal on their side of the bracket. But Johnson, the senior headed to South Carolina, poured in 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while fellow senior Piper Carlson was clutch from the free-throw line hitting 4 0f 6, and STMA pulled out a 55-40 win. Defense was the key – STMA forced (unofficially) 18 turnovers (the state stats said 14) and only committed nine.
In the championship, Hamre’s team played, without question, its best 20 minutes of basketball in the first half. Hopkins was on its heels from the start, trailing 11-3, 18-5, and, finally, 42-25 at the half. JaKahla Craft and Johnson were a two-women wrecking crew. Craft could not miss, hitting jumpers and driving to the lane. Johnson picked her spots, rebounded, and stayed out of some of the foul trouble that plagued her in past meetings between STMA and Hopkins.
Hopkins, on the other hand, couldn’t put a basketball into a swimming pool, hitting only a single 3-pointer in the first 20 minutes.
“You knew, though,” Hamre said. “They’re championship caliber. They’re well coached. You knew Hopkins would come back.”
And come back they did. Scraping for loose balls, fighting for rebounds as Craft cooled off in the second half, Hopkins would cut the lead to 15, then 11, and eventually single digits by the last television timeout. Announcers courtside said the STMA and Hopkins crowds were so loud, they couldn’t hear whistles at times.
STMA’s calmness turned frenetic. They turned the ball over 24 times on the night (10 by Johnson – who was constantly double and triple-teamed). And the Royals spread the floor. Four Hopkins players would hit double digits, with Taylor Woodson leading with 21. Katherine Bixby – in what might have been her last night at Williams – found her outside shooters in unlikely places, including senior Kelly Boyle, who only seems to “blow up” against STMA (she had 22 in the home victory over the Knights).
But it was grit – and time – that served the Knights. Every Hopkins run was met by a Johnson jumper or a Ava House 3-pointer. Abby Hoselton went 6-for-6 from the line, and they needed every shot. And when Johnson hit two free-throws with under 8 seconds left – it was just enough – giving STMA a 4 point lead. Hopkins hit a 3-pointer, but time – yes, time – ran out as Johnson threw an inbounds pass down the floor, and the team swarmed at center court.
“I’m glad,” one parent said, “that game didn’t last 20 more seconds.”
For anyone who watched Hamre, who as finished 3rd, 2nd and now 1st in Class 4A – it was a familiar scene at the end. He raised both arms, ran toward the STMA faithful, and pointed to his friends and family. After attempting to beat Hopkins against for the first time in a long time – eight seasons to be exact – he and the Knights had done it.
“You couldn’t ask for a better group of young women,” he said. “They’re all class. The way they’ve bonded with each other. They way they work at school. The way they treat other teams and other players. This is just a great group. I love them like they’re all my daughters.”
For Tess Johnson – let’s talk about living up to the hype. After missing a season with a broken leg, all she did was score 21, 29 and 27 points in three huge tournament games, finish with a 29-3 record this season, win every accolade and earn Metro Player of the Year. To top it off – she led the All-Academic team in Class 4A as well.
Abby Hoselton and Craft joined Johnson on the All-Tournament Team, as both Hopkins and STMA put three players on the team.