A journey that began when Tyseanna Johnson and Allina Starr were grade-school kids came to a fitting close Saturday night as DeLaSalle defeated Red Wing 65-50 to win its third consecutive Class 3A girls’ basketball championship.
Johnson and Starr played together in youth basketball through junior high and into two high schools. They made five trips to the Class 3A tournament — four with DeLaSalle and one with Minneapolis North in 2009 when they were eighth-graders.
Saturday’s title game at Target Center marked the final time the two suited up on the same team.
“I’m used to looking for her and she’s used to looking for me,” said Johnson, a forward who led the Islanders with 25 points. “It will be strange not to have her out there.”
That familiarity came up big when DeLaSalle (28-4) was struggling with the upstart Wingers (23-8). After taking an early 12-point lead, the Islanders seemed to relax. The Wingers, showing the grit they displayed all tournament, rallied to tie the score 28-28.
A basket just before halftime by Natalie Eull gave the Islanders a 30-28 lead at intermission, but the defending champs appeared vulnerable.
“We lost focus in the first half,” said Starr, a senior guard. She struggled with her shot and foul trouble, but still scored 20 points. “We just had to calm down and relax.”
DeLaSalle coach Faith Johnson Patterson, who has coached seven previous title winners, found the right way to deliver a message to her team.
“We didn’t play well,” Johnson Patterson said. “I said my little speech, then let Joi Jones do the talking.”
Jones, a starting guard until a knee injury in the playoffs ended her season, gave a passionate halftime speech. The senior scolded her teammates for underestimating the importance of the game.
“Joi talked to them and told them it was not OK. She said that she wished she could be out there and that they needed to do more,” Johnson Patterson said. “She got through to them where I couldn’t.”
The Islanders took Jones’ words to heart, holding Red Wing to only six baskets after halftime. In the meantime, Johnson and Starr carried the offensive load, combining for 27 of DeLaSalle’s 35 second-half points.
“They really picked up their defense in the second half,” said Red Wing’s Tesha Buck, the biggest victim of DeLaSalle’s defense. Buck was held to 13 points, 11 below her average. “Give them credit,” she said.
After the game, Johnson Patterson talked wistfully about seeing her two star players leave.
“They’ve been with me for so long,” she said. “It’s like watching your daughters leave.”