The surprise is not that Hopkins defeated Lakeville North 55-40 to win the Class 4A state championship. The Royals have won state titles before, nine before this one.
What stood out about the victory Saturday was how it was done. Typically known as a fast-breaking, high-flying, point-producing program that leans on athleticism to win, Hopkins turned absolutely gritty to nail this one down.
The game facts bear that out: The Royals held their opponents to just 28.3 percent shooting from the field. They won the rebounding battle 47-31, including a remarkable 21-rebound effort by 6-8 senior forward Dane Zimmer. And they leaned on their defense after surrendering the lead for the only time all game, going on a game-clinching 14-0 run and holding Lakeville North scoreless for nearly eight minutes.
"Big games, they generally are never free-flowing," Hopkins coach Ken Novak Jr. said. "They're more of a grind. And these guys ground when they had to."
Neither team had much of a flow to its offense in the first half, primarily because of both sides' commitment to defense. Hopkins managed to build a 10-point lead, largely on rebounding and challenging Lakeville North on every possession, and held a 24-17 advantage at halftime.
The Panthers (27-5) came out blazing in the second half, scoring nine consecutive points to take their only lead of the game at 26-24 on a Tyler Wahl alley-oop dunk.
It seemed to set the stage for a possession-by-possession battle for the rest of the game.
But Hopkins (27-4) clamped down on Lakeville North after that. Defending strongly, the Royals turned the two-point deficit into a 14-point lead by scoring 14 points in a row and 18 of the next 20 to lead 42-28 with 5:36 left in the game.
"We did exactly what we wanted to do, get right back into the game," said Lakeville North coach John Oxton, who wasn't sure exactly how big Hopkins' run was. "Then they went on a 9-0 run, maybe even 11-0, something like that. To go from up two to down nine, we just really, really struggled offensively."
With forward Zeke Nnaji battling constant double-teams, it was guard Kerwin Walton who sparked the Royals' fateful run. He scored eight of the Royals' 14 points in the run and had 17 points. Nnaji had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
"He deserves everything he gets," Novak said. "Nobody puts in more work than Kerwin."
The Hopkins defense kept Lakeville North from putting on a serious run after that. The Panthers did manage to get within eight, 48-40, with 1:52 left, but failed to score after that. Wahl led the Panthers with 19 points and 17 rebounds.
Afterward, Novak praised his team for developing the type of rough-and-ready attitude it needed.
"We were kind of a free-flowing prima donna team at the beginning of the year," he said, "and I thought, as the season went on, we just started to get tougher and tougher and tougher to the point where defense became a little bit of our identity."