This was looking more and more like the kind of disaster South St. Paul had avoided all year.
The Packers, undefeated and ranked No. 3 in Class 3A, had weathered the loss of its head coach and leader, Matthew McCollister, who resigned unexpectedly midway through the season. They never missed a beat, racking up eight straight victories in its wake.
Just three days before losing their coach, the Packers had demolished Hill-Murray – Friday’s opponent – by 56 points. A similar result seemed likely Friday.
But here they were, trailing the host Pioneers by nine points, 46-37, at halftime. Their best player, do-everything guard Alonzo Dodd, was saddled with foul trouble, the by-product of some bizarre calls. And shots that had been falling all year long weren’t.
Co-head coach Darren Edwards, knew what needed to be done and he let his team know it at halftime.
“We told them they’ve got to be more hungry,” he said. “Sometimes, we look at things from a far perspective and keep things in front of us.”
South St. Paul came out more focused in the second half, went on an 18-8 run despite Dodd sitting down early after collecting his fourth foul (on another questionable call) and pulled away for an 85-71 victory, improving to 19-0.
“This is just a testament to the character of our team,” Edwards said. “We’ve got that next-man-up motto. Our top guys go down, we’ve got guys who are ready to do.”
With three of their top players relegated to the bench due to fouls (Dodd, leading scorer Devin Newsome and talented junior Keon Moore), the Packers leaded more heavily on their role players.
Seniors Shawn West-Zimpel and Kaiden Moua picked up the scoring slack until Dodd and Newsome could return and juniors Nasir Jones and America Fitch combine to put the clamps on Hill-Murray’s hustle.
“Those were big minutes for us,” said Edwards, who added that finding a way to win when things weren’t going their way will pay off in the long run.
“Adversity builds in the long run,” he said. “As long as we continue to stack good habits and stay hungry, we’ll be alright.”
Despite missing significant minutes, Dodd was his typical effective self when he was on the floor. He led led the Packers with 25 points and Newsome added 16.
Hill-Murray was led by beefy senior center Eddie Reese, who had 24 points while controlling the paint for most of the first half. Despite faltering after halftime, Reese were please with Pioneers’ effort.
“They probably thought they would win by 100,” Reese smiled. “But that first half were probably they best half we’ve every played.”