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Top games: A fitting main event: No. 1 Park Center vs. No. 2 Lakeville North

By Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine, 12/12/22, 10:45AM CST


Dec. 17: The defending state champion Pirates put their early top-ranking on the line against the rising Panthers.

Photo by SportsEngine

We task our reporters with identifying several intriguing games throughout the state to assemble our Top Games of the Week. The matchups are presented in no particular order, and when there are additional games we want to highlight, we’ll include them with brief notes.

Lakeville North vs. Park Center

8:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 17

A peek at Park Center's season schedule indicates that Saturday night's game against Lakeville North will be played on the "big stage" at Osseo High School.

It couldn't be more appropriate. An early season matchup of expected 2022-23 Class 4A titans. A floor full of highly recruited players. And a possible preview to a game in March on a much bigger stage at Target Center.

It's Park Center, the defending Class 4A state champion and No. 1 team in the Minnesota Basketball News preseason rankings, against No. 2-4A Lakeville North and its gargantuan front line. Our top game of the week? Kind of a no-brainer.

Park Center (2-0, 0-0) bears only a slight resemblance to the team that carried home the 2022 state championship plaque and the entire starting lineup is playing in college gyms across the country. Braeden Carrington is at the University of Minnesota, Cody Pennebaker (who scored 23 points in the state title game) and James Spencer are at Lamar, Leo Torbor is at San Jose State and Ayoubor Berthe is at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

JJ Ware, the champions' sixth man, and 6-foot-4 junior guard Cash Chavis have been elevated to starting roles alongside transfers CJ O'Hara (a 6-foot-3 senior guard from Hopkins) and Chaing Ring (a 6-foot-8 junior from Minneapolis South). The new group has had little trouble with its first two opponents; five players reached double figures in scoring in an 82-45 victory over Edina and the Pirates put up 102 points in a 31-point victory over No. 2-3A DeLaSalle.

Lakeville North (2-0, 0-0) stands tall among a sea of talented Class 4A teams, with 6-foot-11 Nolan Winter, 6-foot-6 Jack Robison, 6-foot-8 Jace Hernandez and 6-foot-5 Hudson Vaith forming an imposing front line. Junior guard Matt Drake is the group's director.

Winter, who is headed for the University of Wisconsin next fall, and Robison combined to average 34 points and 14 rebounds last season.

Head coach Jon Oxton, who entered the season with 637 career victories, has put together a schedule that will test his group early. The Panthers opened the season with an 87-56 victory over No. 6-4A East Ridge, beat No. 1-3A Totino-Grace 68-65 and take on No. 3-4A Wayzata on Tuesday before meeting the Pirates.

Eastview vs. Osseo

5:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 17

This game might be an undercard to the Park Center-Lakeville North matchup on Saturday night, but it features two of the state's most talented teams and is certainly worthy on its own merit.

Three 6-foot-6 seniors -- Myles Adams, Mario Adams and Chet Kloss -- return to an Eastview team that reached the Class 4A state tournament semifinals last March. The No. 5-4A Lightning (1-1, 0-0) lost its season opener 70-61 to No 9-4A Eden Prairie, but bounced back with an 81-75 victory over No. 3-4A Wayzata last weekend.

Jonathan Mekonnen, a prized 6-foot-8 junior, joins the Eastview squad this season, giving the Lightning one of the state's biggest and most athletic lineups.

No. 7-4A Osseo (0-1, 0-0) won't be able to match up with the Lightning in size, but the Orioles' guards, juniors De'Mari Larkins and Ty Swanson, could give Eastview problems. Trey Smith, a 6-foot-6 senior headed to Minnesota-Duluth next fall, gives the Orioles a little size.

The Orioles came up short in a 59-52 loss to No. 6-4A East Ridge over the weekend and face another tough test on Tuesday against Andover, which beat No. 8-4A Lakeville South last week.

Eden Prairie vs. Farmington

7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16

Farmington built a 38-31 halftime lead in its season-opener only to watch that lead evaporate in the second half of an 86-80 loss to Hopkins.

But after victories at Rochester Century and No. 10-4A Bloomington Jefferson, it appears that the Tigers (2-1, 0-0) won't make a habit of letting go of early leads. Farmington trailed at the half 32-27 on Dec. 8 at Jefferson before roaring back in the second half for a 72-67 victory.

It will be important for the Tigers to be at their best in the second half on Friday, when No. 9-4A Eden Prairie comes to town. 

The Eagles, state tournament participants a year ago with 6-foot-1 sophomore Max Lorenson joining 6-foot-7 senior leader Chiddi Obiazor in the 2022-23 lineup, have shown in their first two games they are a strong second-half team. 

Eden Prairie (2-0, 0-0) outscored No. 5-4A Eastview 35-26 in the second half on its way to a 71-60 victory on Dec. 8. That came after the Eagles outscored St. Cloud Tech 48-24 in the second half of an 83-59 victory in a season-opener. The game was tied at half.

Obiazor is the Eagles' focal point. With his height and size, he is hard to miss and he has 29 and 18 points in his first two games. Lorenson averaged five points in 22 games as a freshman and much more will be expected from him this season. He scored 21 in the victory over Eastview.

Farmington reached the Class 4A, Section 1 championship game, which it lost to Owatonna, and appears primed to again have a voice in this season's section race. The road is tough with No. 2-4A Lakeville North and No. 8-4A Lakeville South in the way, but tough nonconference games against the likes of Eden Prairie will help hone Farmington's edge.

Senior Baiden Bean, with a combined 53 points in the first three games, is the Tigers' scoring leader, although the team has several offensive options. Brandon Hrncir has 41 points, Robert Conover 35 and Tyler Backwith 29 through three games.

Other games to keep an eye on

Mankato East vs. Northfield, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 15. One game into a new season, Northfield (0-1, 0-1) finds itself in an important conference matchup. No. 5-3A Mankato East (3-0, 0-0) is the conference favorite and won its first three games by 21, 21 and 33 points. 

Minnehaha Academy vs. Blake, 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16. Minnehaha Academy (2-2, 1-0) is back in the state tournament conversation. The No. 4-2A Redhawks' two losses have been to No. 3-3A Orono and No. 3-2A Maple River. Blake (3-0, 2-0) won 20 games a year ago and returns 20-point scorer Grayson Okoronkwo, a junior guard.

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