Maranatha opened the season as the preseason favorite of Minnesota Basketball News to win the Class 1A championship.
The lofty expectations brought out the best in the Mustangs (29-1), who open the tournament Thursday as the top seed against Mountain Lake. Their three closest regular-season games, including their only setback, were to Class 3A and 4A teams.
“Starting the season No. 1 gave us high expectations, and put a target on our back,” Mustangs senior forward Isaiah Hanson said. “We knew we had to play our best every game.”
The Mustangs’ only loss was to Class 4A Duluth East 81-78. They defeated Class 3A Minneapolis Washburn 79-73 in overtime and posted their biggest victory over Class 4A Cooper 95-93 in overtime.
“The gym was packed and our fans were loud,” Hanson said. “In a humble way, we thought we could beat them.”
Maranatha coach Jeff Wall made the Mustangs’ schedule more difficult this season. Their 12 nonconference games were all against Class 2A, 3A and 4A programs.
“The Cooper win gave us a lot of confidence early in the year,” Wall said. “Coming into the season, our athletes got together and set some pretty strong goals. We have been pleased with the results up to this point.”
The Mustangs are paced by two sets of brothers, the Hansons and Gillards. Isaiah Hanson leads the way at 17.7 points per game, followed by senior Garrison Gillard (14.2) and sophomores Jeremiah Hanson (14.1) and Grantham Gillard (11.7).
“We are very balanced offensively,” Wall said. “It’s definitely a strength for us.”
The Hanson brothers are the last of eight in the family to play under Wall at Maranatha.
“They come from a family that is passionate for basketball,” Wall said. “They help create togetherness and team play.”
The Gillards, in only their second year at the school, “both have stepped up in a positive way for us,” Wall said. “They bring another dimension offensively for us.”
As well-rounded as the team is offensively (it averages nearly 20 assists per game), Wall said, “Since the start of the season our biggest development has been on the defensive end of the court. The guys have really concentrated on that the last five weeks. There is plenty of truth to ‘defense wins championships.’ ”