Minnehaha Academy turned nine minutes of nearly perfect basketball into a mountain that Annandale could not climb, beating the Cardinals 91-79 on Friday in the Class 2A semifinals at Target Center.
The Redhawks (25-6) got a career-high 29 points from guard Kaharri Carter and 23 from guard Jesse Johnson to advance to a state championship game for the first time in team history.
For the first nine minutes, Minnehaha Academy did a pretty reasonable impression of the Los Angeles Lakers, circa 1987. The Redhawks were running and gunning, making easy layups and long jumpers alike, building a lead over Annandale that reached as high as 26 points at 32-6.
But that wasn’t reality and Annandale showed that it, too, could play an up-tempo game.
The Cardinals rallied, taking advantage of Minnehaha’s sloppiness to cut the lead to 42-32 by halftime.
“We are a super-streaky team,” Minnehaha coach Lance Johnson said. “Even when things are going well, we have streaks where we kick the ball away. For the first 9 minutes, we were like the Lakers. For the next nine, we were like the Los Angeles Clippers of the same era.”
Annandale (21-10), feeling confident after the way it closed the first half, managed to cut the Redhawks’ lead to seven points, 47-40, on a three-point play by Matt Miller shortly after halftime, but that was as close as the Cardinals got.
Carter and Johnson combined for the next eight points to help Minnehaha regain control. The Redhawks stopped throwing the ball away, too.
“We might have lost a little focus there,” said Carter, the son of former Gophers forward Randy Carter, of the Redhawks’ slump in the latter stages of the first half. “That was our worst basketball all season. It was good to see us taking care of the ball better.”
Litchfield 72, Esko 47
Playing like Target Center was their home court, the Dragons made 14 three-pointers — three shy of a state record — and cruised over the Eskomos to reach the Class 2A championship game for the second consecutive year.
Litchfield (26-5) started hot and never cooled off. The Dragons made five three-pointers in a row early in the first half — four by senior guard Zach Whitchurch — to take a 17-3 lead.
Esko never got closer than 11 points after that. Whitchurch finished with a team-high 22-points.
“Well, we’ve played here, I think, five times in the past two years,” said coach John Carlson. “We’ve always been a good shooting team and this is a familiar setting.
“We made 14 of 22 on three-pointers and 14 of 25 on two-pointers,” Carlson said, smiling. “I guess we should have shot more threes.”
After a double-overtime victory over Redwood Valley in the quarterfinals, the Dragons also turned up the defensive pressure on Esko to avoid another tight game.
Esko’s leading scorer, Kory Deadrick, had just 10 points — 20 fewer than in the quarterfinals.
“Redwood Valley played great defense against us,” Carlson said. “We wanted to do to Esko what Redwood Valley did to us. And I think we did that.”
Southwest Minnesota Christian 71, Upsala 62
Junior forward Leighton Sampson came out of Friday’s Class 1A state basketball tournament game to a standing ovation from a Southwest Minnesota Christian crowd eager to celebrate again at the final horn.
At the same time, Upsala junior guard Christian Pekarek fouled out to claps from fans before they fled the Target Center.
The late-game fates of both team’s leading scorers told the story of the Eagles’ 71-62 victory against previously undefeated Upsala.
With the victory, the third-seeded Eagles (29-1) play No. 1 seed Maranatha Christian Academy (31-1) for the championship at noon on Saturday. The Eagles, winners of four consecutive titles from 1999 to 2002, took second last season.
Sampson, a 6-foot-5 forward who poured in a career-high 33 points, said his teammates “got me the ball pretty well.”
Upsala coach Vern Capelle said, “Even when we’ve played against good post players we’ve usually been able to contain the passes inside or at least give help so the guys don’t get good looks. He’s just so physical and he’s very athletic.”
Pekarek scored a team-high 22 points as Upsala (31-1) suffered the first blemish to its record.
Maranatha Christian 61, Rushford Peterson 46
Maranatha Christian Academy reserve guard Carter Burquest went from delighted to disappointed in a manner of minutes Friday afternoon.
He left the Target Center court knowing his Mustangs defeated Rushford-Peterson 61-46 in Class 1A state basketball semifinal action but wondering about the integrity of his NCAA tournament bracket.
Television near the Mustangs’ locker room showed the Ole Miss upset of No. 5 Wisconsin. Burquest pulled his jersey over his face as his heart sank. A student manager said what Burquest was thinking: “My bracket is destroyed.”
Burquest said he had the Badgers going to the Elite 8. But Maranatha (31-1), located in Brooklyn Park, is headed to its first title game in school history. The Mustangs, ranked No. 1, play at noon on Saturday.
For the second time in as many games, the Mustangs went into halftime with a two-point lead. And they once again broke it open in the second half with strong defense and a productive transition game.
A steal by junior forward Josh Goldschmidt became a fast-break lay-in for senior guard Garrison Gillard. As Gillard pointed down court to acknowledge the pass, a referee signaled a Rushford-Peterson timeout. The two gestures represented a game slipping out of the Trojans’ grasp.
Gillard’s bucket gave Maranatha a 12-point lead the Trojans would never seriously challenge in the game’s final 11 minutes.
“I could feel the game tilt, the momentum going our way,” said Gillard, who scored 12 points and was one of four Mustangs in double figures. “As our coach would say, we could see the hay in the barn.”
March Madness soon set in for Rushford-Peterson coach Thomas Vix, who said he told his team to gamble defensively in hopes Maranatha shooters would fail to convert on better perimeter looks.
Instead, the Mustangs hit three-pointers on three of their next four scoring possessions — two from sophomore guard Grantham Gillard (13 points overall) and one from sophomore forward Jeremiah Hanson (17). Senior forward Isaiah Hanson led the Mustangs with 18 points.
“That was a real kick in the head,” Vix said.
Seth Thompson led the Trojans (27-4) with 20 points.
DAVID LA VAQUE