Tested by adversity over the past month, the Eden Prairie Eagles girls basketball team should be pleased with the results of their own progress report following a rematch with top-ranked Hopkins on Tuesday.
“Oh, I think I think we’re exactly where we need to be,” head coach Ellen Wiese said after the game.
A cold Friday night in mid-January now seems like ancient history. The Eagles were playing on the road at Hopkins without Kylie Bamlett – a senior captain and the heart of their defense – who had suffered an ankle injury against Minnetonka the week before.
Despite a valiant effort by the Eagles, the high-powered Royals – behind 6-foot-1-inch senior guard Nu Nu Agara – ran away with an 86-51 win, handing Eden Prairie their worst defeat of the season.
After that loss, Eagles senior captain Molly Lenz looked at the positive and said playing an elite team like Hopkins “makes all of us better. In the long run, it’s a good thing, especially I think it will help get us ready for sections.”
She wasn’t wrong.
There were no pity parties for the short-handed Eagles, who showed resilience in the seven-game stretch without Bamlett. Eden Prairie went 4-3 in a three-and-a-half-week span, with narrow losses to No. 4 St. Michael-Albertville and No. 3 Wayzata, along with the defeat at Hopkins.
Since Bamlett’s return last week, the Eagles, currently ranked seventh in Class 4A, have cruised past Edina and avenged their loss to Minnetonka, which brings us to the rematch with the state’s top team.
“We’re just more poised,” Wiese said. “We don’t get as rattled. We have veteran kids out there that know how to play and know the situation.”
The situation on their home court Tuesday night included a battle-tested Eden Prairie team that was not intimidated by the Royals’ potent offense. Throughout the night, the Eagles maintained their composure, much in part to the rock-steady presence of point guard Lenz.
“Molly is our leader,” Wiese said. “Nothing fazes her, it doesn’t matter, she’s just got the same face. And we just kind of feed off of her poise.”
Hopkins jumped out to an early first-half advantage, but Eagles sophomore guard Tori Schlagel kept the Eagles close with 17 first-half points.
The Royals held their biggest lead, 28-19, with 4:34 to play before the half, when the Eagles went on a 15-0 run, taking away Hopkins’ biggest threat in the process.
“We were trying to double [Agara] and we were there pretty much every time in the first half,” Lenz said. “So I think that helped a lot. We got some steals, and we also boxed out really well.”
The Eagles made the most of every possession. Senior Annika Anderson hit a three-pointer to ignite the run, picking up 9 points in the first half.
Anderson would finish with 14. Senior Ashley Fritz had 12 to go with 10 rebounds. Bamlett notched 8 points for the Eagles to go with her 10 boards.
“I thought that run was the best we’ve played all season,” Wiese said.
The Eagles shot 50% from the field in the first half, but Wiese was quick to point out the first-half flurry all started on defense.
“We were jumping the passing lanes,” she said. “We were getting steals and getting run outs. And then we shot very well.”
At the intermission, the Eagles held a 34-28 lead.
Bamlett had the unenviable task of guarding Agara, who had scored 23 points in the first meeting between the two teams. In the first half of Tuesday’s game, she was held to a single point.
“It was a big undertaking,” Bamlett said. “In the first half, I was almost surprised at how it was working out. But obviously I expected her to still drop enough on me but I think I did a good enough job and my goal was to not foul her, just give her some trouble in the lane and I think I did that.”
The Eagles began the second half by outscoring Hopkins 6-0. Fritz drove for two, followed by Bamlett, who put away an offensive board, while Anderson finished off a dish from Schlagel.
Eden Prairie led 40-28 when Agara started to find her form. The Royals went on a 30-9 stretch over the next 14 minutes, taking a 58-49 lead with 1:12 to play.
The Eagles had difficulty answering Hopkins’ press, which disrupted the Eagles’ ability to build on their first-half momentum.
“They’re tall, long and athletic,” Lenz said. “And they’re deep so they’re able to sub and sustain it the whole game, so everyone can stay fresh. And they’re just used to it. They do it every game.”
The Eagles got late three-pointers from Fritz and Anderson, along with a mid-court three by Lenz at the buzzer, but it wasn’t enough, as Hopkins (17-1) went home with a 64-58 victory.
Despite their second loss to the state’s top program, the Eagles looked like an entirely different team from their January meeting. They’ve emerged from a difficult month with hard-earned confidence and have captured momentum as they enter the final stretch of the regular season.
“I think we’re in a good spot for where we are in the year,” Bamlett said. “Next week, we have three really big games that we’re looking forward to, so we’re gonna put a lot of preparation into that and work really hard to make sure that we execute in those games.”
Wiese believes the future is unlimited if her players can avoid injuries and maintain the poise they’ve acquired from being tested by adversity while facing quality opponents this season.
“Knock on wood, we’re healthy and the kids understand their roles,” Wiese said. “I think we’re exactly where we want to be. Yeah, I have no reservations about saying that this team could go as far as they want to go.”
The Eagles (12-6) move on to host Buffalo on Friday at 7 p.m.
“We’re feeling confident,” Lenz said. “We beat them by a lot last time, but we’re definitely not going to overlook them, but it should be a good game, should be a fun night, too.”
The game is senior night for the team, honoring seniors: Anderson, Bamlett, Fritz, Anna Jaeger, Savanna Jones, who has been out all season with a torn ACL injury, and Lenz.
“I am looking forward to senior night,” Bamlett said. “I can’t believe I’m in the senior position now. It’s crazy.”
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