New Life Academy senior Erick Reader has already enjoyed one jubilant basketball moment this year. It was when Cherry junior guard Isaac Asuma announced he would play college basketball for the Gophers.
"There was a celebration at our house," Reader said. "Our families are close."
Reader, a 6-8 forward, will walk on for the Gophers. Asuma announced at the beginning of this month he was committing to coach Ben Johnson's team.
"He was offered during the state tournament last year," Reader said. "My opportunity didn't come until this past summer."
Reader and Asuma first crossed paths four years ago, when Asuma joined Reader's summer AAU team for a tournament in Burnsville. Asuma was an eighth-grader, Reader a freshman. They also played together with the Grassroots Sizzle AAU program.
The Eagles beat Cherry 66-60 in the Granite City Classic in late December.
"We have become good friends," Reader said.
During a Monday afternoon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Holy Family's gym, the Fire crushed Minnehaha Academy 101-56. A much different final score — a 76-72 overtime victory for Minnehaha Academy — played out in Friday's Class 2A semifinals.
"Never did I think I would regret a 45-point win more than drawing Minnehaha Academy in the state semis," Holy Family coach Joe Burger said. "That was an outlier game."
As Burger pointed out, the Redhawks played the Friday and Saturday before that mid-January game. The Fire got out to a big lead at home that day, and "it was just one of those games" for Minnehaha Academy.
So, what was the main difference between that first meeting and the one Friday that featured a resilient Minnehaha Academy team edging the No. 1 team in overtime to return to the state championship game?
"We showed up to play," Minnehaha coach Lance Johnson said. "In January, we didn't show up to play. We came out lackadaisical as players, and as a coaching staff as well. We didn't prepare them well enough.
"And we decided that that was never going to happen again. And since that time, it hasn't."
The Redhawks were certainly prepared in the state semifinal. Junior guard Jerome Williams said the biggest difference was the team's defense. Senior post Rolyns Aligbe said that this time, "everybody was 10 toes down. Everybody was locked in."
"I've never seen everybody being locked in like this," Aligbe said. "We wanted it. We wanted them. Everybody doubted us … but we showed up and we fought to the end."
Johnson mentioned the progress his players made this season, from being a team where "defense was optional" to now taking great pride on that end of the court.
"Tonight, they didn't play slightly above-average defense," Johnson said. "They played awesome defense."
The Redhawks defense led to 19 Fire turnovers, and they made 14 steals to the Fire's six.
The Fire coaches knew that mid-January result would weigh in Friday's game.
"As a coach, you fear that, because you're dealing with … high school kids," Burger said. "That, 'we beat them by 45 last time, let's look forward to the finals.' "
Lakeville North coach John Oxton said he didn't recognize his team early in its 79-77 loss to Wayzata in the Class 4A semifinals late Thursday.
The guard-centric Trojans built a 44-31 first-half lead against the taller Panthers, and that grew to 20 in the second half before a comeback.
"We struggled in ways that we haven't seen in quite a while," Oxton said. "We've been playing really well, but it was really, really a struggle. Give Wayzata credit. They did exactly what they wanted to do, to a 'T.' And we didn't do that."
Oxton said he had to remind his team how it got to the semifinals.
"It was, 'Get aggressive,' " he said. " 'You're a good team. We need to play like that.' For whatever reason, we were on our heels."
A whole new challenge
As Park Center coach James Ware and his players left the podium after Thursday's postgame interview session, someone thanked them and threw in a "good luck."
"Thanks," Ware responded. "We'll need it. They're really good."
Somebody asked, "Which team?" because the second semifinal, between Wayzata and Lakeville North, had yet to be played.
"Lakeville North," Ware said. "They're scary."
Ware wasn't intending it as a slight to Wayzata, which defeated Lakeville North 79-77 in the second semifinal, but he remembered the Pirates' tough game against Lakeville North in December, a 78-71 victory. They didn't play Wayzata during the season.
Stopped at 2,000
White Bear Lake guard Jack Janicki scored 14 points in the Bears' 68-64 victory over Andover in the Class 4A consolation final Thursday at Concordia (St. Paul) and finished his prep career with exactly 2,000 points.
Last month, Janicki became White Bear Lake's all-time leading scorer when he scored 21 points in the Bears' 52-50 victory over Stillwater in the Class 4A, Section 4 semifinals. He broke the school record of 1,916 points set by Jeff Halbert in 2002.
The Bears were playing in the state tournament for the first time since 2000. Halbert was a member of that tournament team.