John Oxton mouthed the words almost silently rather than say them out loud, but that made them all the more meaningful.
"Yeah, big relief."
Oxton was thinking about the final play in Lakeville North's stressful 47-45 victory over No. 1-seeded Park Center in the Class 4A semifinals.
With 4.1 seconds left in the game Thursday at Target Center, Park Center's speedy Emmanuel Tamba, whose energy had sparked a big second-half comeback, drove left. He pulled up about 10 feet from the basket. But his off-balance shot caromed off the backboard and the rim as time ran out, sending Lakeville North to the championship game for the fourth time since 2012.
The Panthers won the title in 2014.
The game started like Lake-ville North was going to run Park Center off the court. Using the muscle of twins Will and Eli Mostaert to take away the Pirates' inside-out attack, the Panthers repeatedly turned missed shots into transition baskets, taking a 16-2 lead.
Park Center, which shot 66.7 percent in the quarterfinals, continued to miss from the floor and the Lake-ville North lead continued to mount. It reached its largest margin at 24-4 when Panthers guard Jack Rusch hit a three-pointer with 5:05 left in the half. Park Center shot just 18.2 percent in the first half and trailed 31-14 at the break.
"They weren't making shots, we were getting out in transition and getting easy baskets," Oxton said.
That wouldn't last.
With Tamba providing the second-half energy and center Dain Dainja asserting himself down low, Park Center began to mount a comeback.
Relying on its quickness to disrupt the Lakeville North offense, Park Center gained momentum with a 14-2 run, cutting the deficit to 11. The Pirates slowly chipped away at the lead thereafter, leading to the Tamba's failed attempt at a game-winner.
"It was just kind of a snowball," Oxton said of Park Center's second-half rally. "One thing led to another and they definitely got on a roll."
Park Center coach James Ware looked at the postgame stat sheet and couldn't help but think about what might have been.
"In the first half, it was 14-31," he said, referring to the halftime score. "In the second, it was 31-16. To mount a comeback and have a shot to tie it or win it. I'm just proud of our players and their heart and the way they responded."
Tommy Jensen led Lakeville North (27-4) with 16 points and guard Tyler Wahl had 11 points and 15 rebounds. Tamba scored 16 to lead Park Center (29-2).