The entrance to the home locker room for the Eden Prairie boys basketball team is located about 30 feet from the visitors’ room in the lower level of the high school, directly below the main gymnasium.
The chorus of joyous shouts coming from visiting Prior Lake – unmistakably associated with a hard-fought victory – were in stark contrast to the deafening silence of heartbreak and finality shared inside the home team’s locker room.
Moments earlier, the Lakers had defeated Eden Prairie 69-64 in the Section 2AAAA quarterfinals, avenging an earlier loss to the Eagles, who had won a January contest on a buzzer-beating shot by senior guard Luke Rapp.
Wednesday’s showdown was just as competitive, as the final outcome between the two closely-matched teams was not determined until the game’s closing seconds.
As Eden Prairie players filed out, making their way up the stairs to seek comfort in the company of family and friends, red eyes and flushed faces were apparent. The hues were not a result of exertion from the down-to-the-wire quarterfinal game, but the realization that the season – and for some, basketball careers – was over.
“It’s definitely not what we wanted,” senior wing Quincy Oriwa said, fighting back tears. “But we worked our tails off and we tried to do everything we could the right way. We competed and played for one another. It just didn’t go our way.”
Both teams traded swings in an intense and fast-paced first half. Eagles freshman guard Nolen Anderson, who has been lights-out from long range during the second half of the season, put down three straight three-point field goals on his way to a team-leading 13 first-half points.
“My teammates kept hitting me again and again,” Anderson said. “So I just kept knocking them down and it just kept going in.”
The Eagles led the Lakers by as much as 10 in the back-and-forth first half, holding a 32-25 lead at the break.
“We were up at halftime and then they got on a run to start the second half,” sophomore wing Max Lorenson said.
Prior Lake broke out with 6-0 run after the intermission, only to be answered by six points from Lorenson, as the Eagles maintained a narrow lead. Lorenson would finish with 18 points, 11 coming in the second half.
“I’m very proud of how we competed,” Eden Prairie head coach David Flom said. “If you lose because you miss shots, you can handle that. And I thought we competed and I thought that was a big part, where we got the shots we wanted for a long stretch, and then we just didn’t make them. And that opened up the door a little bit for them to get back in.”
The Eagles shooting went cold midway through the second half, leaving Prior Lake to embark on a 20-0 run, which finally ended with a pair of Oriwa free-throws with 5:23 remaining.
“We just came out flat in the second half,” Oriwa said. “We weren’t doing the right things mentally I guess. We were competing but we made a couple of mistakes here and there.”
Trailing by 12 with 4:07 remaining, the Eagles found a way out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
“Our defense sparked it,” said Anderson, who finished with a game-high 22 points. “We got a couple of turnovers that gave us momentum. We got the ball, put it in the basket, did our job.”
Rapp drove for two, followed by another layup from Anderson; a three-pointer from Rapp was followed by a long three by Anderson. The Eagles found themselves within four of the Lakers with 47 seconds remaining in regulation.
“I just love how we were down 12 with four minutes to go and nobody gave up.” Lorenson said. “We stuck to the plan and we almost ended up pulling it out.”
A series of free-throws by both teams kept the game close in the closing minute. The Eagles trailed 65-63 after Oriwa made the second of his two at the line. But that was as close as the Eagles would get to completing the comeback.
“We were down 12 and we fought back and we gave ourselves a chance to tie it there at the end,” Flom said. “So I’m really proud of our kids and obviously we’re really proud of our seniors.”
Prior Lake had possession with a four-point lead and two seconds remaining. It put the game out of reach, but gave the Eden Prairie seniors a curtain call as they exited the floor for the final time.
Rapp, Oriwa and Joey Flom received ovations from the Eden Prairie faithful, along with fellow seniors Carter Arneson and the injured Adam Mertens.
“The seniors are all great guys,” Lorenson said. “I’ve been with them for a long time, too. I’m really gonna miss them and obviously Coach Flom has been with them for a really long time, coaching them through travel all the way up until now, so this group [leaving]hurts a little bit extra.”
The game also marked the end of a tumultuous season for the Eagles, and their head coach, whose highly-publicized suspension from the team in December left some players, parents and community members divided.
Flom, the National Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 2020, was reinstated by the school district in January after a six-week suspension from the team. His return sparked more controversy with several parents, whose sons had quit the team after the reinstatement.
During Wednesday night’s game with Prior Lake, about a half-dozen people in the stands held signs in protest of Flom’s return as head coach.
As Eden Prairie’s turbulent season drew to a close on Wednesday, there were no players who appeared relieved to see its conclusion.
“We’ve gone through it this season, with a couple of different things,” a tearful Oriwa said. “But we kept fighting and we kept working harder, practicing and playing for one another.”
Oriwa said the head coach shared his gratitude with the team for their dedication throughout this most challenging of seasons.
“He just told us he loved us,” Oriwa said. “He was grateful for coaching us and that we worked hard.”
The Eagles finished the season with a record of 11-14, holding hope for a successful run in 2024 with a young roster of 11 returning players.
But as this season concludes, the light shines on the seniors, playing their final game in a year which no one in Eden Prairie will ever forget.
“I told them how proud I am of them and how much I love them,” Flom said. “And you know, as we’re all crying and hugging, you just hold on to those hugs a little bit longer.
“It’s hard when it comes to an end. You’re crying because you put so much into it and you love each other, and there is a lot of that in that locker room.”
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