“That was huge,” Ellen Wiese said with a large exhale on Friday night outside the Eden Prairie gymnasium. “It was huge.”
The last time the Eden Prairie girls basketball head coach and her team had faced high-powered St. Michael-Albertville, it was on the unmistakable raised floor of Williams Arena in March.
The Knights ended Eden Prairie’s season with a 55-40 win in the state semifinals on their way to a state championship.
That was then; this is now.
The sixth-ranked Eagles upended No. 3 ranked St. Michael Albertville with an impressive 66-58 victory in their first home game since Dec. 22.
“It was so good to finally get back home and play here,” Wiese said emphatically.
The win also comes at the end of a challenging week that saw a 69-63 loss to second-ranked Hopkins on Friday, Jan. 12, and a lopsided 75-48 decision at the hands of No. 7 Wayzata on Tuesday.
Add the defending state champs to finish off the seven-day gauntlet of games; but the Eagles saved the best for last.
“I kind of told the kids that was a must-win situation,” Wiese said of Friday’s contest. “Because I really felt like Tuesday night was not us. It was like the perfect storm. We had all this stuff coming off against us, being without Ella (Hardwick). And so I was like, ‘we need to turn it around right away; we can’t wait until next week.’
“So it was a huge win.”
Eden Prairie held the lead for much of the first half. And while STMA grabbed a narrow advantage early on – and just before halftime – the Eagles had an answer for the Knights whenever they tried to make a move.
Eden Prairie junior guard Rae Ehrman hit the first of her five three-point field goals with 9:37 remaining in the first half to give the Eagles a 15-9 lead. She followed with another three just a minute later, as Eden Prairie led by seven with 8:45 before the intermission.
“When she hits some threes, she never misses,” junior guard Vanessa Jordan said of Ehrman’s hot hand. “So it’s always fun watching her do so good and hitting all those threes. And rebounds too, not just threes, she can do it all.”
Erhman finished with a team-high 26 points to go with 17 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots.
“Rae was on fire,” Wiese said. “Just unbelievable. Her tenacity on the boards has been a godsend to us this year.”
Wiese said her team lost height through graduation, along with leading rebounder Kylie Bamlett, who was the Eagles’ anchor in the backcourt last season.
“We kind of looked around and said ‘hmmm,’” she recalled, assessing the lineup at the start of the season and wondering how the Eagles could overcome their size disadvantage.
Wiese pointed to Ehman’s work ethic as the key factor in the team’s success, saying, “With Rae, it’s just resilience and tenacity and it’s a desire and an urgency to do what she needs to do for her team.”
With just one senior on the roster, Eden Prairie relies on a high-flying junior class.
Juniors Ehrman, Jordan, Hardwick, Abby Valiton and Camryn Dennin are among the core of a team for the next year and a half, with Jordan and Valiton assuming captain roles this season.
And amid the darkness of the Wayzata defeat, the Eagles focused their attention on one bright light cutting through the frigid Tuesday evening.
Another junior, captain Tori Schlagel, raced by a career milestone against the Trojans, scoring her 1000th career point.
The achievement cannot be understated, considering two of last season’s standout players – seniors Molly Lenz and Ashley Fritz, both of whom are playing at the collegiate level – didn’t reach 1,000 until late into their final season.
“I mean, to have 1,000 points as a junior, and then you add on the fact that you play in the Lake Conference, that’s unbelievable,” Wiese said. “To me, that equals 2,000 in some other schools. You’re not playing St. Michael, Hopkins, Tonka, night in and night out. So, yeah, that was an incredible accomplishment.”
On such occasions, it has become ritual to stop play to for a brief recognition of the achievement.
It was highly likely Schlagel would reach the mark at Wayzata – and she finished with 18 points to lead the Eagles. But Wiese and Schlagel’s family agreed it would be best to let the landmark moment pass by and wait to celebrate on their home court.
“We knew that was gonna be a tough game. We didn’t know it was gonna be that tough,” Wiese said. “I talked to her parents and said, ‘You know I could tell the opposing coach, and they would call a timeout.’ But we agreed to just wait until tonight.”
So before the opening tip with STMA on Friday – in their first home game in four weeks – Wiese took the PA microphone to announce to the home court faithful what Schlagel had accomplished three nights prior.
“That was just awesome,” Schlagel said Friday. “I’m just so grateful I got to get it when I did, get it with the people that I love, and just get it with the community around me. I was super grateful.”
Schlagel, whose three-pointer with under a minute remaining before halftime put the exclamation point on Eden Prairie’s first-half lead over STMA, said she and her teammates were excited for this challenging stretch; and will draw upon it as a solid indicator of their position in the competitive Lake Conference.
“I just think it rejuvenates us,” she said of Friday’s win. “We can play with absolutely anybody in the state. And I think we’re not someone to overlook. So I just think it just gives us all confidence, and we’re excited.”
The Eagles held a single-digit lead throughout the second half against STMA. And despite several surges from the Knights, Eden Prairie never relinquished their lead.
Ehrman posted 18 of her 26 points in the second half to lead the Eagles down the stretch.
Jordan added 12 second-half points to finish with 14, while Hardwick and Dennin each had seven.
Hardwick, who was out of the lineup for the past week, was happy to be back with her teammates and contribute to the victory.
“We’re so strong together. We all have a good relationship on and off the court, and we’re always there for each other,” she said. “We know each other; we know what we’re good at. We know what we have to work on, and we always have each other’s back.”
The Eagles (14-3) will have only a short time to enjoy the win as the demanding Lake Conference beckons. Eden Prairie will face top-ranked Minnetonka (15-0) on Tuesday night on the Eagles’ home court.
But after the week they’ve endured, don’t expect the Eagles to back down from a challenge.
“We might not be the biggest team there is, but we can hang with any team,” Jordan said. “So I think that’s just really good to know going throughout the season.”
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