Before Saturday, St. Michael-Albertville coach Kent Hamre, in his 18th season, had defeated Lake Conference rival Hopkins once.
The Knights doubled that total Saturday, building a big first-half lead and withstanding a strong Hopkins comeback attempt after halftime to pull out a 71-70 victory in the Class 4A girls basketball championship game at Williams Arena.
Tessa Johnson, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, had 27 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for the Knights, who had four players score in double figures.
Defending champion Hopkins, which trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half, closed to within one, 71-70, on Kelly Boyle's third three-pointer of the second half with 1.2 seconds left, but that was the end of the Royals' rally.
"What a game," Hamre said. "We let them back into it, but we didn't quit. Too many times, with Hopkins, you get intimidated. And yes, the Hopkins intimidation was there, but these girls battled right to the end."
Hamre said the Knights' belief they would win never wavered, even as Hopkins mounted the final rally.
"Every time they came back to the huddle, they were saying, 'We got this, we got this,' " he said. "They had so much confidence in these kids. Other times, with Hopkins, there was a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks. Not this time. It was, 'Let's finish this.' They were on a mission, and mission accomplished."
Hopkins coach Tara Starks said her halftime message to her team was simple. "Just dig in," she said. "All season, no matter how much we got down, they always believed in themselves. We wanted to just keep chipping away, one possession at a time."
When asked if the Royals could have used a few extra seconds at the end of the game to complete the comeback, Starks shrugged. "Two, maybe three," she said.
Hopkins' talented seniors — Taylor Woodson, Nunu Agara and Boyle — sparked the comeback, just as Sparks expected they would.
"That's what seniors are supposed to do," she said. "Make the underclassmen believe that the game is not over until the last buzzer buzzes."
If Hamre had drawn up his optimal game plan, it would have looked much like Saturday's first half.
After Hopkins took a 2-0 lead on a pair of Woodson free throws, the Knights defense closed off the lane and didn't allow Hopkins to work the ball inside. At the same time, the Knights controlled the tempo on offense, stayed patient and worked the ball to junior guard/forward JaKahla Craft.
Hopkins was unable to play the game at the frenetic pace it prefers, and St. Michael-Albertville built a lead. Craft scored 12 points in a game-opening 27-6 run. Hopkins did not make a shot from the floor until less than eight minutes remained in the half. St. Michael-Albertville, refusing to speed up its offense, maintained a big advantage for the rest of the half and took a 42-25 lead into the break.
The first-half numbers told a story of St. Michael-Albertville dominance. The Knights went 14-for-23 from the floor (60.9 percent), made four of seven three-pointers and outrebounded Hopkins 21-14. Even the 10 first-half turnovers St. Michael-Albertville committed didn't hurt much. Hopkins wasn't able to turn those miscues into significant points and committed seven turnovers of its own.
Woodson was the only Hopkins player able to do much on offense in the first half. The 6-foot senior guard/forward had 11 points and four rebounds.
St. Michael-Albertville finished 29-3, Hopkins 28-3.