For Minneapolis North and head coach Larry McKenzie, the third time was the charm.
After narrowly missing the boys state tournament the past two seasons, the Polars — who last won a state crown in Class AAAA during the 2003 season while being led by Kammron Taylor, James Davis and Kevin Henderson — made it back and completed a three-day run defeating Goodhue 68-45 to capture the Class A state boys basketball championship at the Target Center last Saturday afternoon.
It was a close game in the first half, but in the end the timely scoring of junior guard Isaac Johnson, the inside presence of Odell Walker IV, the clutch baskets (including two dunks) by senior forward Jamil Jackson Jr., the leadership and athleticism of senior guard Tyler Johnson, the steady floor game of junior guard JaQuan Sanders-Smith, and the game-changing ability of senior guard Pat Dembley, proved to be too much for Goodhue.
Isaac Johnson led North with 18 points. Dembley had 14, Tyler Johnson added 11, and Wilson IV chipped in 10.
Ben Opsahl led Goodhue with 12 points, North — whose early dominance in the game was highlighted by a long pass from Dembley to Tyler Johnson for and alley-oop dunk — raced out to a 15-2 lead to start the game.
Goodhue shook off the slow start and regrouped to take a 26-25 lead at halftime but North didn’t panic.
“Coach always tells us that halftime is exhibition,” Jackson Jr. said with a smile. “He just told us [at the half] to come back out and play our game.”
The Polars did just that as Isaac Johnson’s driving lay up and two free throws started a 19-4 — with Tyler Johnson, Dembley and Jackson contributing — to start the second half and as they led 44-30 with 12:24 remaining. Isaac Johnson led the way with eight points during the run.
With North leading 49-38 at the 6:30 mark, Dembley simply took over, hitting consecutive short jumpers, assisting Jackson Jr. — which led to a two handed dunk — and ending the run with a lay up to give North a 59-40 with 4:19 remaining.
“He was definitely the difference-maker in the second half,” McKenzie said of his point guard. “He got the keys to the car and drove us home.”
During his post game conference, McKenzie — who led Minneapolis Patrick Henry to four Class AAA titles from 2000-2003 — made it clear that while he was happy to get title number five, it wasn’t just about him or his players.
“We are glad to be here,” he said smiling during his opening statement. “We worked hard for this. This championship is for the school and community.”
When asked if he was happy to win another championship, the veteran coach’s answer summed up his vision of what high school athletics is all about.
“Yes I am glad we won the championship,” he said with a serious tone. “State championships are nice,” he continued. “But the ultimate championship for me will be four years from now when my seniors invite me to their college graduation.”
Mitchell Palmer McDonald welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Mitchell Palmer McDonald is a contributing columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.