By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
Coffee was being served prior to the start of the 10 a.m. morning game between St. Michael-Albertville and Hopkins, kicking off the 2013 girls’ state basketball tournament.
Not long after, Coffey was being served on the court, as Hopkins forward Nia Coffey helped guide the Royals to a 77-58 state quarterfinal win March 13 at Target Center.
The McDonald’s All-American forward – who struggled early – did most her damage from the perimeter. Coffey scored a game-high 22 points, nine coming off 3-point shots and grabbed nine rebounds helping pave the way to the start of three consecutive state championship titles for the Royals.
No. 1 Hopkins came into the matchup with unseeded STMA with a record of 28-1. Outside of a 79-70 loss Jan. 8 at Centennial, the Royals won all but two games by more than 10 points – it included a 79-50 victory over the Knights on Feb. 16.
Despite the potential mismatch, STMA players were not intimidated coming into last Wednesday’s showdown.
“You can’t walk into a game thinking you’re not going to win,” said senior Nicole Westrum.
“We didn’t think we were beat from the start,” said senior Natalie Van Wyhe. “We still believed in ourselves that we could stay with them.”
Senior guard Jordan Hansen said she was thinking upset from the get-go.
“I’m okay with playing them the first round,” Hansen said. “Honestly, I was just tired of hearing about; Hopkins, Hopkins, Hopkins. I wanted to go in and give them a run.”
STMA came out of the gates frustrating the 2-time defending champs. A pumped up Knights squad forced Hopkins into sloppy play. However, STMA failed to capitalize on its opportunities, thanks in part to the relentless Hopkins defense.
The Royals held a slim 3-2 lead nearly four minutes into the contest. But shortly after a timeout, Hopkins opened up a double-digit lead after Coffey connected on a pair of outside 3-pointers, giving the Royals a 19-7 advantage.
“Our game plan was to make her shoot from the outside,” said STMA head coach Kent Hamre. “She’s such a strong force on getting to the rim. We thought we would take our chances and change things up. She proved she could hit from the outside as well.”
While Hopkins’ star forward was heating up, the Knights offensive struggles continued into the half. STMA trailed 40-22 at the break.
STMA finally made a push early in the second half. The outside shooting of Hansen and senior Makenzie Bebo – who finished with seven second-half points – kept the game respectable.
“We had to stop them from scoring,” said Hansen, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “We ran a different defense in the second half that we’ve never ran before and that helped keep them off the boards. In return, it got us points too.”
With Coffey on the bench for most the second half due to foul trouble, it was Royals senior Taylor Anderson and sophomore TT Starks stepping up in her place. Anderson finished with 12 points and nine rebounds and Starks had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think we exposed them a little bit with our pressure defense,” Hamre said. “Their kids are clearly better athletes, but we played with bigger hearts.”
While Hopkins finished with a 19-point win. STMA (24-6 overall) had a moral victory in the fact they went toe-to-toe with the Royals, in a second half that saw them outscored only 37-36.
“We’re earning respect,” Hamre said. “I think we earned respect in the state of Minnesota that there is basketball being played outside of the metro. We played with these girls. There was five minutes we didn’t play with them, the rest of the game I felt we did.”
“I’ve scouted this team three or four times and we played them once,” said Hopkins head coach Brian Cosgriff. “What I saw out there was a team that played their tails off. They should be extremely proud and they are well coached. Kent does a great job and they have a fabulous program going there.”
The 19 points eventually turned out to be the closest margin of victory, as the Royals defeated both Osseo and 72-50 and Bloomington Kennedy 68-45 to earn their third straight title.
When asked if drawing STMA as a first-round opponent was a bit of surprise, Cosgriff responded, “Nothing surprises me when you get down here,” he said. “The beautiful thing about St. Michael is they are not afraid to play anybody. That’s why their QRF is so high. They play everybody and they do well.”
After the game, STMA seniors; Van Wyhe, Bebo, Hansen, Westrum, Bre Grube and Karissa Pazen were seen red eyed and comforting each other knowing it was the last high school game they would ever play together.
“We were down, but did what we could,” echoed Grube and Pazen.
“We passed on our legacy. I hope they come back and get Hopkins again and I’ll be here for it,” Bebo said.
Four Knights earn all-conference
Van Wyhe, Bebo, junior Erin Autio and sophomore Bobbi Brendefur all earned Mississippi 8 All-Conference honors. Van Wyhe led the Knights averaging 10.5 points per game. Autio finished second with 10.2, Brendefur third with 9.3 and Bebo averaged 6.5.
Van Wyhe also led the team in assists and steals. She was recognized as the M-8 Most Valuable Player. Hansen, Westrum and freshman Sydney Tracy all earned honorable mention status.
Natalie Van Wyhe was held to four points in the state quarterfinal game against Hopkins. Van Wyhe is greeted at the bench by assistant coach Andy Cleveland and senior’s Karissa Pazen (4) and Nicole Westrum after fouling out in the second half. (Photo by Rob LaPlante)