The raised floor at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus is truly unique in the sport of basketball.
The stage-like setting elevates the competition for all to see – unobstructed – creating a vantage point unlike anywhere in the country. Great plays and great players seem to shine even brighter through the Barn’s theatrical sightlines.
In the girls state semifinal game between No. 3 seed Eden Prairie and second-seeded St. Michael-Albertville on Thursday, one player rose above all others.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, she was not on the Eden Prairie roster.
“She was just unstoppable tonight,” Eden Prairie head coach Ellen Wiese said, characterizing the performance of St. Michael-Albertville senior point guard Tessa Johnson.
“I am not going to try to sugarcoat it,” Wiese continued. “I just thought her mentality was just that she was going to refuse to lose and I mean, she had to have shot 70 percent.”
Johnson scored 29 points and posted 10 rebounds in STMA’s 55-40 victory, their third win over the Eagles this season, including the two conference games between the teams.
“I don’t know what she shot from the field. But she was making everything and I just think it was almost impossible to stop her,” Wiese said in near astonishment.
Johnson, who has committed to play at top-ranked South Carolina next season, shot 12-of-22 from the field, going 2-of-6 from three-point range and accounting for nearly 53 percent of the Knights’ 55 points.
Wiese assigned senior point guard and captain Molly Lenz to cover Johnson throughout the second half, in an effort to limit the damage created by the Knights’ star player.
To make matters more challenging, tournament play does not feature a shot clock, giving STMA greater ability to maintain possession for long stretches. But Lenz, who is friends with Johnson after years of playing AAU basketball, was determined to stick right with her, generating some laughter between the two.
“They were just running around at the top at half court.” Lenz said. “And she was like, ‘Molly, why don’t you just like let me dribble it out already.’ I’m like, ‘Tessa, you know if there’s time on the clock, I’m gonna keep chasing you around.’”
Lenz, who will play at Illinois State next season, led the Eagles with 21 points, though the Eden Prairie stat sheet has her listed with 18. In either case, the Eagles were never able to establish a rhythm with Johnson hitting so frequently.
“Molly did a great job on her but like I said, she wasn’t gonna be stopped tonight, no matter who guarded her,” Wiese said.
It didn’t help that the Eagles’ shooting accuracy dropped precipitously from their 78-57 win over Centennial in the quarterfinal round.
“Last night, they were 9-for-18 from the three-point line,” STMA head coach Kent Hamre said. “And we were to the point where we’d rather give up a two than give them the wide open three. And granted, they didn’t shoot well. But I felt it was the buy-in of these girls on defense tonight.”
Eden Prairie shot just 15-of-45 from the field for 33 percent, 2-of-16 from three-point range and just 8-of-15 field goals.
“Obviously we struggled mightily there,” Wiese said.
Lenz, who rarely leaves a game for any reason, took a hard fall in the second half and was forced to exit the floor. She was checked out by longtime trainer Gary Smith and feared she may have to stay on the bench for the rest of the game.
“Right after it happened, I was pretty shook up,” Lenz said. “So I was a little scared that I might.”
But when Smith gave Lenz the green light, the senior pumped her fist in excitement, returned to the game and immediately scored on a layup off a nice pass from senior Annika Anderson.
While there were few highlights for the Eagles in the semifinal game, they certainly have reasons to be proud of the season they’ve built.
Eden Prairie began the year without senior standout Savanna Jones, out for the season with a torn ACL, which forced Wiese to rethink their entire approach.
“When she went down in late July, we literally had to revamp our entire defensive offensive schemes because of the absence of Savanna,” Wiese said. “And then we started kind of finding our way.”
The Eagles lost senior captain Kylie Bamlett for seven games in January, but battled through the added adversity.
After a narrow defeat to Wayzata on Feb. 16, Eden Prairie rode a six-game win streak into the semifinals against STMA.
“After the Wayzata home game is when we really started peaking,” Wiese said. “After that, we won by an average of like 21 points for all the rest of the games until tonight. And so, once we started rolling, then I thought anything was possible.”
As the year began, few saw Eden Prairie winning the section title over top-ranked Chaska, much less making a run to the state semifinals.
“I’m gonna be honest, if you told me that before the season started, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Lenz said. “Losing Savanna, I think made us all doubt a lot, because she would have been such a big part of our team. But we found another way, we just had to change some things. But we found another way to get here.”
The Eagles navigated through the high-powered Lake Conference, reaching the final four of the state tournament, one of three Lake Conference teams to do so, along with STMA and Hopkins.
“That gauntlet of going through the Lake Conference just prepares you for this,” Wiese said. “We had an off-night tonight, but then once we got rolling in the season, I thought anything was possible, including winning this one and getting to where we wanted to be (Saturday) night.”
With their victory over the Eagles, St. Michael-Albertville (28-3) moves on to play top-seed Hopkins (28-2) in the state championship game at Williams Arena on Saturday.
“They’ve got nothing at all to hang their heads about,” Wiese said. “It’s hard to lose. And it’s hard to lose when you don’t play your best game as a team.”
Eden Prairie (21-10) will face No. 4 seed Stillwater (25-6) for third place on Saturday at Gangelhoff Center on the Concordia University campus in St. Paul.
Opening tip is set for 4 p.m. as the Eagles lower the curtain on a memorable season.
“When all of us look back on this with some perspective, we’ll realize what an incredibly special year this was, given the obstacles we had to overcome,” Wiese said.
“It’s nothing short of incredible.”
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