St. Michael-Albertville holds off Hopkins for Class 4A state championship
Pick your storyline and the Class AAAA girls basketball championship game between top-seeded Hopkins and No. 2 St. Michael-Albertville had it on Saturday, March 18.
From exhilarating runs that built huge leads to riveting comebacks that nearly came to fruition to drama-soaked moments where a one-point lead became precarious, St. Michael-Albertville emerged on the winning end against an opponent that has long been a nemesis. Before a celebration could begin to end what will long be remembered as an epic, the Knights had to kill 1.4 seconds from the clock with a half-court pass to secure a 71-70 victory over Hopkins in the Class AAAA championship game at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.
In 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 different enrollment classes: Class AA (2001), Class AAA (2009) and now the big-school class. A year ago, Hopkins defeated St. Michael-Albertville in the Class AAAA championship game. The Royals’ mastery continued during the Lake Conference season when they recorded two victories within a month. In fact, the last time St. Michael-Albertville had defeated Hopkins was on Dec. 8, 2015, but the Knights were part of the Mississippi 8 Conference.
But the Knights (29-3) cleared the recent Hopkins’ hurdle when senior guard Tessa Johnson made two free throws with 7.6 seconds remaining to give St. Michael-Albertville a 71-67 lead. The free throws from the University of South Carolina recruit were precious because after a turnover, Hopkins pulled to within a point following a three-pointer by senior guard Kelly Boyle.
Pinned deep in Hopkins’ end, to get the clock to finally drain to zeroes, Johnson inbounded with a long baseball-style pass to a scrum of players and the horn sounded amid the scramble. Johnson finished 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 when the Knights built a stunning 21-point lead against the defending Class AAAA champions.
Hopkins (28-3) didn’t waver in the face of such a large deficit. The Royals, who outscored the Knights 45-29 in the second half, created turnovers and converted baskets in the second half that mirrored the dizzying rate 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 final 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 witnessed was an incredible championship game. The race from the start, the way Hopkins played like a champion in not backing down and the drama to the finish, it was truly an epic title game. This reinvigorated girls basketball in Minnesota.”
In an incredibly-frenzied pace in the first half, St. Michael-Albertville shot nearly 61 percent from the field in building a 42-25 lead. The Knights led by as many as 21 points in building an advantage through a blend of outside shooting and close-range jumpers and layups. On the other end, 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 and delivered with 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 in the midst of the frantic back-and-forth with 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the first half.
Hopkins made a few moves to carve into the unaccustomed large deficit, but the Knights had an answer with timely baskets or key stops.
Woodson led the Royals with 11 points in the first half.