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North St. Paul, off to its best start in over a decade, hasn’t loss to a Minnesota team since Dec. 21.
Yet the Polars started Friday’s matchup with Metro East Conference foe St. Thomas Academy with their heads down, already trailing by a point before the opening jump.
Coach Damian Johnson didn’t submit his starters in time and was charged a bench technical, giving the Cadets first possession and guard Gram O’Malley a trip to the free-throw line where he shot 1-for-2.
Granted, Johnson’s decision was a tough one with 10 athletic players in his rotation, and after trailing by as many as 12 points, his team responded to the challenge.
Cahlil Golden paced a group of four Polars who hit double digits in scoring with 16 points in a 69-60 victory over St. Thomas Academy at North St. Paul High School as the Polars maintained their perfect league record.
“That kind of put us down, we were all upset,” senior Bryce Phillips said regarding the pre-game technical. “After five minutes into the game we got our heads together and came around.”
Ranked eighth in Class 4A by Minnesota Basketball News, North St. Paul (18-3, 10-0) dug itself out of a hole with a 22-6 run to close the first half, but allowed the No. 8-3A Cadets to crawl back in the second half before the Polars used their inside strength to pull away late.
Golden and Phillips fed off each other from the outset. While Goodnews Kpegeol and St. Thomas Academy’s star wing Sam Vascellaro largely cancelled each other out, Phillips found Golden while driving through the paint for the Polars' first two baskets.
Six-foot-4 senior LaQwane Cochrane anchored the Polars on both ends, and scored eight consecutive points before Phillips sank a pair of threes that sparked North St. Paul’s first-half run. Kpegeol found his stroke from long-range, followed by a floater from Golden and another Phillips three-pointer that gave the Polars a 30-28 lead.
Phillips referred to Golden and his chemistry to NBA 2K’s “Orange Juice” meter that gauges developing chemistry between two players in the video game. As the chemistry develops, new abilities are unlocked.
The “Orange Juice” was flowing when Phillips shook a Cadets defender off his feet with a behind-the-back dribble, and pushed the ball up the floor to Golden for a transition basket that brought an already raucous North St. Paul gym to a higher decibel.
“(Phillips) is playing at a real high level,” Johnson said. “He’s picked it up over the past four games and that’s changing things for us.”
After letting its lead slip and allowing another extended North St. Paul run to start the second half, St. Thomas Academy (12-8, 8-3) went on a 13-2 run where Jack Thompson and O’Malley poured in a combined 12 points that tied the game at 46-all with 11 minutes left in regulation. Thompson sank a quartet of timely three-pointers in the final 18 minutes to keep his team in striking distance.
But the Polars went to work inside as Cochrane and 6-foot-7 senior forward Marcus Sims capitalized on the offensive glass to regain the lead and force the Cadets into the foul game.
Johnson’s fiery persona on the sidelines has helped motivate his team in his first year at the helm of the program. With a rematch with league and Class 4A, Section 4 rival Tartan slated for Tuesday, Johnson hopes his team will maintain its mettle.
“I want my team to continue to be hungry,” he said. “Stay hungry and be ready to work and I think we’ll be in great shape.”
Cahlil Golden paced North St. Paul with a team-high 16 points in a 69-60 win over Metro East rival St. Thomas Academy Friday night at North St. Paul High School.
Ranked eighth in Class 4A by Minnesota Basketball News, the Polars (17-3, 10-0) closed the first half on a 22-6 run after trailing by 10 points six minutes into the game.
St. Thomas Academy (12-8, 8-3) tied the game midway through the final half, but North St. Paul pulled away after Golden converted on a fast break layup and forced the No. 8-3A Cadets to foul.
Bryce Phillips posted 11 points and assisted four of Golden’s first-half baskets, while LaQwane Cochrane and Goodnews Kpegeol poured in 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Jack Thompson tallied a game-high 21 points for St. Thomas Academy, followed by George Stewart who scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half.
The MN Basketball Hub poll is for entertainment purposes only.