Jitters? What jitters?
The only question surrounding Champlin Park was how well the Rebels would handle their first state tournament appearance since 2010.
After obliterating St. Francis 90-47 in the opening game of the Class 4A quarterfinals on Wednesday , that question seems foolish. Operating at the same high level that they have performed at all season en route a 30-0 record, the Rebels took control from the outset, blitzing St. Francis with a 42-11 burst over the last 10 minutes of the first half to take a 52-23 halftime lead.
“I’m never worried about this team being prepared,” coach Mark Tuchscherer said. “They were prepared at practice last night, knowing it was a 10 a.m. game.”
The Rebels’ depth and cohesion had veteran basketball observers shaking their heads in amazement. Consider this: Metro Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball finalist J.T. Gibson finished with just nine points, fifth-best on the team. Jeremy Johnson and McKinley Wright scored 17 points each, Marty Hill added 15 and Aaron Kloeppner had 12.
“I’ve played on teams this close before, but never one with this much talent,” Johnson said. “If one of us is hot, he’s getting the ball. If not, he’s just got to hustle and do other things. Another chance will come.”
Shakopee 64, Roseville 53: Shakopee used a strong second half, buoyed by the re-emergence of star forward Steffon Mitchell, to pull away from Roseville in the Class 4A quarterfinals.
In the first half, Mitchell, a 6-7 Star Tribune All-Metro forward, fought to find his game. Knowing what Mitchell had meant to them all season, his teammates made sure the game was still in reach until he won his battle.
“That was probably the worst first half I’ve ever played,” said Mitchell, who averaged 24.6 points during the season.
He scored only two points before halftime, both on free throws, as Roseville, making its first state tournament berth since 1997, took a 25-22 halftime lead.
That deficit could have been worse if not for Shakopee’s depth. The Sabers’ role players — including Tevin Killeen, Drew Hanbury, Tyler Gaebel and Taylor Triplett — helped keep the game close until Mitchell could get on track.
“That was the story of the game, I think,” coach Bruce Kugath said. “The quality of our bench allowed us to remain strong.”
Mitchell asserted himself by scoring 17 of his 19 points after halftime. He punctuated his efforts with a stretch in which he scored 11 of Shakopee’s 13 points, helping turn a close game into a comfortable victory.
Mitchell gave credit to his teammates for his improved second half.
“They told me at halftime that I’m the best player on this team and to just go out and play like it,” he said. “That helped a lot.”
Apple Valley 70, St. Michael-Albertville 57: The big names did what big names do: Gary Trent Jr. scored 20 points, Tre Jones ran the offense smoothly and chipped in eight points, Brock Bertram commanded the lane despite getting into early foul trouble.
But the real story of Apple Valley’s comfortable victory was the play of some of the Eagles’ lesser-known — but not lesser in importance — players.
Junior forward Cameron Kirksey had a terrific outing in his first state tournament appearance, scoring 10 points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking four shots. Senior forward Riley Parham also had 10 points and five rebounds and spent much of the game harassing St. Michael-Albertville shooters. Austin Korba played 16 valuable minutes, chalking up five points, while Bertram was out.
“Cameron is such a long, athletic player,” Apple Valley coach Zach Goring said. “When he defends and stays out of foul trouble, he’s a very big part of our team. And I thought Parham gave us great energy on defense.”
Apple Valley looked every bit the part of state title contender, methodically building a first-half lead the ballooned to 20 points, 40-20, at halftime. Kirksey scored all of his points in the first half on 5-for-6 shooting from the floor.
“Last year, I was a role player,” Kirksey said. “This year, I’m getting more a chance. There’s no real pressure because it’s all about doing the right thing for the team.”