Neither the pressure of playing in its first state championship game nor the imposing height of Northfield's forwards rattled Cooper.
Instead, the feisty, fearless Hawks put all the pressure on Northfield. They were relentless, dictating a frenzied pace the Raiders couldn't match. Cooper claimed a historic Class 3A championship with a 49-37 victory Saturday at Target Center.
No. 1 seed Cooper (29-2) played to its strength: defense. The Hawks tormented Northfield ballhandlers, producing 20 turnovers — 11 on steals — and outscoring the Raiders 17-2 in points off turnovers.
Cooper held Northfield to its second-lowest point total this season.
"It's been like that all season," freshman guard Andrea Tribble said. "With our crazy defense, we've been able to play our game instead of kneeling down to them."
No. 2 seed Northfield (27-4) got 24 points from senior guard Grace Touchette. But superior guard play belonged to the Hawks, doing damage by committee. Junior Aja Wheeler scored a team-high 15 points and grabbed seven steals. Ja'Hyia Gaston scored 10 points with Ty'Neecia Longs (nine points) and Tribble (eight) doing their part.
"We got hustle and we got heart," Aja Wheeler said. "We wanted it more than they did."
Cooper freshman Kierra Wheeler held her own inside against Northfield's quartet of 6-footers — Emma Carlson, Annika Hoff, Rachel Kelly and Annalee Olson-Sola. Though she scored only five points, Wheeler collected 12 rebounds, blocked four shots and helped hold the Raiders' front-line quartet to a combined 11 points.
"I was using my strength," Kierra Wheeler said. "Pressuring them. Making them feel uncomfortable."
Wheeler helped Cooper negate its lack of height. The Hawks outscored Northfield 28-16 in the paint.
"Credit to [Kierra Wheeler]," Hoff said. "She played really great defense. And we did not finish, which is uncharacteristic of our team."
Northfield cut its deficit to 26-25 early in the second half but never claimed a lead. Cooper took off on a 9-0 run, again pulling away from the Raiders.
"When we made those runs, we got right there and they would go on a four- or six-point run," Northfield coach Tony Mathison said. "We were always chasing."
That was Cooper before this season, always pursuing heavyweights Wayzata and Hopkins in Class 4A, Section 6. The Hawks' postseason fortunes dramatically changed when the program unexpectedly dropped from Class 4A to 3A because of falling enrollment.
On Saturday, the state newcomers turned hard postseason lessons into sweet success.
"We actually did it and made history," Gaston said. "It was just exciting."