The motto was so ubiquitous that Apple Valley coach Zach Goring admitted he was ready to hear something different. After the Eagles downed No. 1-ranked Champlin Park 64-61 in the Class 4A boys’ basketball championship game Saturday, Goring can rest easy.
“I told my wife that I didn’t want to go through another season with the same motto,” Goring said. “That was our rallying cry all season. We said it when we broke huddles. We even had a “UB” hashtag on Twitter. Now, I know we’re going to be able to find something new.”
Adding to the Eagles’ motivation was a 79-74 midseason loss to Champlin Park during a holiday tournament in St. Cloud. If the end to the 2014 season wasn’t enough, that pushed them over the edge.
“The whole season, that’s what motivated us,” said sophomore forward Gary Trent Jr. “We knew what we could do.”
But motivation was only part of the equation. The Eagles still needed to prove it on the court, which they did convincingly against Champlin Park’s previously undefeated Rebels.
The Rebels made a living on their athleticism, slashing through the lane for baskets and hitting three-pointers when teams sat back fearing the drive. Apple Valley’s size and grit proved to be just the antidote for that philosophy.
Champlin Park opened up a quick 14-7 lead. But Apple Valley’s size — the Eagles started three players who were 6-5 or taller and three more of similar height off the bench — helped turn the momentum its way.
One of those bench players, reserve forward Steven Christiansen, provided the spark that killed Champlin Park’s momentum with a six-point spurt that tied the score 19-19 with about seven minutes left in the first half.
“Our bench was our key,” Goring said. “We don’t lose anything when we go to the bench.”
Apple Valley then switched to a zone defense to slow down Champlin Park’s urge to run. At the same time, Rebels forward Theo John picked up his third foul, relegating him to the bench for the remainder of the half.
Apple Valley took advantage of John’s absence. The Eagles finished the first half on a 10-2 run, punctuated by a lob-dunk from the Eagles’ star underclassmen, freshman guard Tre Jones, to Trent. Apple Valley led 31-27 at halftime.
The battle inside between John and Apple Valley’s 7-foot center Brock Bertram was one of the key pregame matchups. Bertram won that battle, his space-gobbling size keeping the lane free of traffic. Champlin Park started living behind the three-point arc in the second half and that’s where the dream of an undefeated season died. The Rebels made only seven of 21 three-pointers after halftime — they were 10 of 29 for the game — and saw rally after potential rally falter in a high-arcing bounce off the rim.
Champlin Park’s 2015 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, J.T. Gibson, was held to a season-low six points.
“We’re not going to hang our heads,” senior guard Jeremy Johnson said. “We ended up 31-1. That’s the best season this school has ever had. We’re going out right now to celebrate our season.”
Trent led a balanced Apple Valley attack with 15 points. Jones, Bertram and Cameron Kirksey each had 12 points.
DeLaSalle 82, St. Paul Johnson 64
Late in the first half Saturday, a St. Paul Johnson player tried to save possession by firing the ball off DeLaSalle’s Josh Collins and out of bounds.
Thinking fast, Collins caught the ball and went up for an easy lay-in. The Class 3A boys’ basketball championship game went in a similar manner. The Governors’ attempt at chaos failed to rattle a composed DeLaSalle team, turning a matchup of the consensus two best teams in Class 3A into a one-sided affair.
Top-ranked DeLaSalle ran away for a 82-64 victory at the Target Center, becoming the third school in the 103 years of state tournaments to win four consecutive state championships. Minneapolis Henry achieved the feat from 2000-2003, also in Class 3A. Southwest Minnesota Christian won four Class 1A titles from 1999-2002.
“About 15 years ago I had a hard time savoring the moment,” Islanders coach Dave Thorson said. “The last couple years I’ve got older and wiser. I love these kids.”
Then he joked, “I’m probably not going to watch film tonight.”
Spoiler alert: The Islanders (27-4) dominated all facets of the game, rendering second-ranked Johnson (27-4) stagnant. The Governors posted the same number of turnovers (23) as they did successful shots from the field.
DeLaSalle scored 24 points off turnovers and 20 second-chance points, testaments to their advantage in transition and inside.
Marquette-bound DeLaSalle senior forward Sacar Anim led all scorers with 32 points. Collins, who committed to North Dakota, added 17 points and 13 rebounds. Sophomore Goanar Mar chipped in 14 points. Senior guard Jarvis Johnson scored nine points. His future college coach, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, was in attendance.
The Islanders went on runs of 10-0 and 12-0 during the first half. The Governors went a little more than five minutes without a bucket until almost halftime.
“It wasn’t necessarily about them, it was more about ourselves,” Johnson senior center Justus Murphy said. “As a team we weren’t connecting. We should have come out with more intensity.”
Collins scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds, five of them on the offensive end, in the first half. DeLaSalle dominated inside, outrebounding Johnson 45-37 for the game and limiting many Governors’ possessions to one shot.
“Rebounding and boxing out are things of the past,” Thorson said. “You’ve got to cut out, be aggressive and assertive. And we had five guys cutting out both Thursday and [Saturday].”
DeLaSalle’s storm door defense held up against repeated, frenzied Governors’ tries. The Islanders interception several pass attempts from the free-throw line to the end line. Johnson turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, exceeding coach Vern Simmons imposed limit of 10.
Senior guard Jalen Mobley, playing in his third state tournament, led the Governors with 19 points on a 7-for-23 shooting performance.
“We got stops and finished strong,” Anim said. “They got to us early but we slowed the game down and played to our pace.”