Elk River has been overcoming deficits all year and still boasts an unblemished record. So why should the state tournament semifinals be any different?
The Elks rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final five minutes, including a hectic, controversial final four seconds, to emerge with a 57-56 victory over Lakeville North.
Elk River (31-0) advances to play undefeated Hopkins (31-0), marking the first time two unbeatean teams will meet for the Class 4A championship since the four-class tournament began in 1997.
Trailing 52-45 with six minutes left, the Elks went on a 10-2 run, taking the lead 55-54 on a traditional three-point play by leading scorer Gabi Haack. The teams traded baskets over the final minutes, with the Elks (28-3) going ahead for good on Ava Kramer's layup by 56 second left.
"We've played a number of close games all season," Elks coach Jeremy Digiovanni said. "These girls believe. They have tremendous confidence in each other and find a way to get it done."
Lakeville North had numerous chances to get the go-ahead basket in its final possession, but an ill-timed timeout and a likely missed foul doom their chances.
With 4.1 seconds left, Lauren Jensen picked up a loose ball and made a 15-footer that would have put the Panthers up 58-57. But Lakeville North coach Shelly Soule had called a timeout a fraction of a second earlier, negating the basket.
On the ensuing inbounds play, Temi Carda spotted up from the corner but was hammered by an Elk River player who also blocked the shot. Carda fell to the floor, but no foul was called. A Panthers last-ditch attempt fell just short.
"I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I told our team that this must be Elk River's year," Soule said. "But it's tough to lose in the worst way possible."
Digiovanni admitted that his team has been on the receiving end of some fortunate bounces this season.
"To have a season like this, you have to have things go your way," he said. "Players make plays. We were fortunate enough to make enough at the end.
"To say it's our year or not, that's up for us to determine Saturday," he said. "But these girls have come out with a purpose all year long. They show a tremendous amount of resolve when the chips are against them."
Hopkins 64, Eastview 59: For the first 25 minutes or so, things came pretty easy for Hopkins.
The undefeated and No. 1-seeded Royals were getting a marvelous performance from freshman guard Paige Bueckers and a do-everything-else effort from junior Raena Suggs. On top of that, much-needed leadership from D.D. Winston, despite the senior guard playing a full game two days after missing the quarterfinals with a 103-degree temperature. It all led to a comfortable 17-point lead over Eastview.
By the end of the game Thursday at Williams Arena, Hopkins was gasping for breath, having held off a remarkable charge from the Lightning. Eastview's rally began with 11 minutes left and the Lightning had the ball, down only three points, with 50 seconds left in the game.
"Eastview really put the pressure on us," Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff said. "But at the end of the day, it's survive and advance. That's what it's about, whether it's by one point or 30 points."
Before Eastview's run, the game had been the Bueckers and Suggs shows. The 5-10 Bueckers, lauded by many as a player with a chance to become the best in state history, showed off her myriad skills. She scored 29 of her game-high 31 points as the Royals built a 47-30 lead with 11 minutes left in the game.
When Bueckers wasn't scoring, Suggs took advantage of Eastview lapses and scored 16 points of her own.
"It was just go and get the garbage balls," Suggs said.
The game marked the third consecutive year the two teams had played in the state tournament, with Hopkins winning all three. Eastview coach Molly Kasper denied the notion that the Lightning (24-7) might have Hopkins in their collective heads.
"I don't feel that way," Kasper said. "They put on their shoes the same way we put on our shoes. Bottom line is, we have to execute our game plan. I would never be scared to play them."
Instead, Kasper said her team took a little too long to find its game. And by that time, it was too late.
"They score in bunches and they score off turnovers. Well, we had had 17 turnovers," Kasper said. "We can't do that."
Rachel Ranke scored 19 points and Allie Pickrain added 15 for Eastview.
Hopkins (31-0) has won six state championships under Cosgriff but has never finished undefeated. The Royals could pull off that feat Saturday game, but old habits die hard. They still won't let themselves think about what could be.
"If it happens, then great, we made history," Winston said. "But we're focusing our tunnel vision. That's what we say, tunnel vision. It's just about the game."