Lakeville North’s best player, Connor Flack, was out with a back injury. Drew Stewart had not scored in double figures all season. Carter Brooks never saw the floor during the 2014 state championship run.
Didn’t matter. Playing big games at Target Center is what brings out the best in the Panthers. That was evident in Wednesday’s 65-61 victory over Hopkins in the final Class 4A quarterfinal of the day.
On paper, it could be considered an upset. Hopkins was the No. 3 seed, while Lakeville North’s 11 losses were the most by any team in the field.
But anyone who knew the Panthers’ history wasn’t surprised by the result. They were making their fourth consecutive state tournament appearance, marked by two championship-game appearances during that stretch. And they had been playing their best basketball of the season over the past month.
“We’ve been playing good basketball for about eight games now,” said coach John Oxton. “We’re hoping this is the start of something special.”
Hopkins opened up leads as big as seven points in the first half, but Lakeville North cut that lead to one at halftime, 27-26, with a late six-point spurt.
The momentum gained carried over into the second half. Lakeville North pushed the ball at every opportunity and led 49-37 with 9:54 left on a three-pointer by Stewart, his third of the game. Stewart finished with a season-high 16 points.
“I didn’t play that well this season,” Stewart said. “So this feels pretty good.”
Hopkins rallied to tie the score 58-58, but Lakeville North held firm, closing out the game at the free throw line.
Brooks, a 6-6 junior guard, led Lakeville North with 17 points, including four clutch free throws down the stretch.
“We knew we all had to step up and do a little more with Flack out,” Brooks said. “We really felt like we could win the whole time. We have such great coaching, we were just locked in.”