Click photos to view the entire gallery from the game.
Anytime two state championship-caliber teams get to meet in January, it’s easy to get excited.
So while Thursday's matchup between the Redhawks (13-3, 3-0) and Polars (11-3, 4-0) wasn’t a high-flying offensive affair, the physical, grind-it-out contest that ensued was still entertaining.
And if the players involved get their way, it will happen again — with greater stakes.
Tayler Johnson led Minneapolis North, ranked No. 2 in Class 2A by Minnesota Basketball News, over No. 1-2A Minnehaha Academy 62-53 on neutral court.
It was the latest victory for a Polars squad that’s been proving a lot lately.
“That game was big,” Johnson said. “It was a big statement game. We knew coming into the game it was going to be tough, a big crowd. So we just had to keep our composure all the time, and just play our game and execute.”
Minneapolis North is the reigning Class 1A champion, and moved up to Class 2A this season. Minnehaha Academy is the reigning 2A champ, so both teams have a recent history backing up their 2017-18 successes.
Still, Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie said while it was a hyped matchup, it was still just a regular-season game.
“Honestly, it was a big game because it was 1 and 2,” McKenzie said. “But it was a regular season game, so it was just part of the process. Doesn’t hurt either team.”
The Polars faced a couple top Illinois teams during a trip to Chicago earlier this season, and just beat No. 3-2A Caledonia 79-77 on the road last weekend. So when they saw an early lead turn into a five-point deficit late in the first half, there was no panic. Meanwhile, Redhawks star Jalen Suggs had a slow start and a frustrating second half, and Minnehaha Academy’s second-leading scorer, JaVonni Bickham, went down with an ankle injury in the first half.
Johnson helped the Polars to a fast start, with 10 quick points in the opening minutes of the game. The senior also helped close it out at the free-throw line to finish with 24 points as Minneapolis North closed the game on a 13-0 run over the final two minutes.
“I knew that was going to be my role in the game,” Johnson said. “I had to come out and just prove them wrong and do what I had to do to get us started in the first half. Then it was just executing.”
The composure wasn’t a surprise, seeing as Minneapolis North has won two straight state titles entering this year. But it was still a welcome sight for the Polars, as it's been a benefit that seems to keep popping up in big games.
“This is what this team has done,” McKenzie said. “I saw the same thing on Saturday, when the game was on the line, they just pulled together and played really tough. I just love the way they’re playing as a team and the composure. If you really think about the last couple of minutes, they kind of lost their composure and we just kept playing.”
Minnehaha Academy is in Section 4, while Minneapolis North is in Section 5, so the teams would see each other again in the state tournament. Should each team make it to the Target Center, they’ll likely be the favorites to face off for the title. The players are pretty familiar with each other, so a rematch for first place resulting in another close game wouldn’t surprise anyone.
“This is just step one,” Johnson said. “I played with Jalen (Suggs) and JaVonni (Bickham) over the summer, and we talked a lot about this game. We knew the game was going to be close. They had their opinion, and I had my opinion. I just proved them wrong in this game, and we’ll see them again.”
Minneapolis North's Tayler Johnson (5) was fouled by Chet Holmgren. Johnson scored a game-high 24 points for the Polars. Photo by Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine
The top two teams in Class 2A squared off on a neutral court at Mounds Park Academy Thursday, with Minneapolis North, ranked No. 2 in Class 2A by Minnesota Basketball News, coming back the game's final moments to topple No. 1-2A Minnehaha Academy 62-53.
Tayler Johnson led the Polars (11-3, 4-0) with 24 points, and made key free throws down the stretch as Minneapolis North finished the game on a 13-0 run to seal the win.
Minnehaha Academy trailed all game until Jalen Suggs made a pair of free throws with 11 minutes, 41 seconds to play to put the Redhawks up 34-32. Minnehaha Academy (13-3, 3-0) led 51-47 with 2:35 left.
Eli Campbell tied the game at 53-53 with a pair of free throws with 1:29 to play. Nasir El-Amin finished an old-fashioned three-point play with 1:01 to go, and the Redhawks turned the ball over on the inbounds, helping the Polars finish the game at the line.
Polars senior Odell Wilson IV had 16 points and Campbell added nine.
Prince Aligbe had 13 points to lead Minnehaha Academy, while Suggs had 11 after a scoreless first half. Second-leading scorer JaVonni Bickham had six points in the first half before going out with an ankle injury and missing the rest of the game.
The MN Basketball Hub polls are for entertainment purposes only.