For all of the coaches' analysis and postgame thoughts on why Hopkins was able to defeat East Ridge 71-45 in the Class 4A semifinals, one thing stood above all others.
Hopkins has Zeke Nnaji. East Ridge doesn't.
The 6-11 Nnaji, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, was able to assert himself offensively whenever needed Thursday at Target Center despite the hard-nosed defense of East Ridge forward Ben Carlson. Nnaji powered his way to 23 points and 10 rebounds to send the Royals to the Class 4A championship game for the first time since 2016, when they defeated Saturday's opponent, Lakeville North, to win the title.
"He's a tough kid to guard," Carlson said. "He played well tonight. Credit to him."
The two teams played to a near-draw in the first half. Hopkins took a 26-24 lead into the locker room with half of its points coming from Arizona-bound Nnaji, who said he enjoyed the challenge of playing against the 6-9 Carlson, also a Division I prospect.
"It was fun going again him," Nnaji said. "He's a strong guy, tough."
In the second half, the rest of Hopkins' lineup took some of the load off Nnaji's shoulders. Hopkins scored on its first three possessions and just kept building on its lead.
Sharpshooting junior guard Kerwin Walton scored 13 of his 17 points after halftime as the Royals started moving the ball better. Guard Jalen Dearring was fearless, slashing to the basket for 10 clutch points. Unsung forward Andy Stafford took advantage of the opening created by Hopkins' efficiency to score 13 points. As a team, Hopkins shot 73.1 percent in the second half.
"We shared the ball more, got in a little bit more of a rhythm," coach Ken Novak Jr. said. "We scored the first three possessions and you start feeling good."
East Ridge coach Bryce Tesdahl said that balance did in his team. "Their role players stepped up and made shots, and that really opened up their offense," he said.
Senior Courtney Brown Jr. led East Ridge (28-3) with 13 points.