The Section 8AAA boys basketball field is tight at the top with four teams all ranked among the top 20 in the state right now with just a couple weeks left in the regular season.
St. Cloud Apollo (14-6) and Alexandria (16-5) are in that group as the two teams met up in Alexandria on Tuesday night trying to get a big win on their resume to boost their standing.
The Eagles (ranked No. 8 in Class AAA through the Minnesota-scores.net QRF) came into the game atop the section, but Bemidji (ranked No. 9) and the Cardinals (ranked No. 12) are not far behind. That’s why Alexandria was excited to defend its home court on Tuesday in a 74-67 win over Apollo in a section that looks like it could be wide open come March.
“It feels really good. We really wanted this one,” Alexandria junior guard Colton Roderick said after scoring a game-high 27 points and adding six rebounds and six assists. “This is one of the games we circle on the calendar just waiting to play. They got us at their place, and we didn’t think we played the best game we had in us. We just wanted to come out and show them.”
The Eagles won 82-69 when they hosted Alexandria in St. Cloud on Dec. 17. The Cardinals returned the favor by putting together a 41-point second half.
Roderick put up 15 points by the break, put Apollo made its run to take a 34-33 lead at the half. The Cardinals responded right away, going on a 12-0 run to open the second half.
“I thought we defended well,” Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said. “We didn’t give them easy opportunities, and we got good looks at the basket on our end. Sometimes it’s simpler than you make it out to be. Our guys hit shots, we made some plays and gave them a little trouble in ball-screen coverages.”
Alexandria’s lead grew to 52-40 with 12:16 left, but Apollo has a potent offense. The Eagles average a section-best 77.2 points-per game, and they made it a one-possession game down the stretch.
Senior guard Chang Hoth had two big threes in the final minutes on his way to a team-high 23 points. At 6-feet, 7-inches, sophomore big man Thomas Diew put up 18 points, and senior guard Michael Gravelle added 15 to keep Apollo in the game.
“You got Chang , who is just all around. He can shoot from anywhere and he doesn’t miss,” Roderick said of the Eagles. “You got Thomas and Puoch (Dobuol) in there who are just so tall and grab rebounds. They’re a really long team.”
Alexandria doesn’t match that kind of length, but the Cardinals have speed as their advantage against almost every team they face. Ethan Patience joined Roderick in double figures with 14, while Erik Hedstrom added 11, including three threes.
Apollo had cut its deficit to three points when Kristen Hoskins used a ball screen at the top of the key from Hedstrom to gather the defense. Hedstrom dropped back behind the three-point line, and Hoskins found him with the pass. Hedstrom stepped right into his shot and drained a three with 2:16 left that made it a 67-61 game.
“Kristen made the right pass to Erik and Erik was confident in the shot,” Witt said. “We got a little bit stagnant at the five-minute mark where we weren’t getting a whole lot of attacking...that was definitely a big shot and something Erik’s been doing a lot more of lately.”
Every shot felt important for the Cardinals against an Apollo offense that is never out of a game. Senior guard Ryan Forster came off the bench to hit a three that forced an Eagles’ timeout in the first half. Sophomore Carter Steffensmeier added four points off the bench, and Carrson Jones (6 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and Hoskins (9 points, 3 assists) had important plays throughout the second half.
Hoskins made two free throws with 29.4 seconds left that all but put the game away.
“These games are beneficial down the stretch, for sure,” Witt said. “When you get in the playoffs, you’re going to get tight games. Being in those situations and knowing how to handle it is valuable. For our guys to go through that, it wasn’t perfect. There are things we can definitely work on, but this was beneficial.”
The Cardinals have now won nine of their last 10 games, with the only loss in there coming against a top-10 ranked Delano team on Saturday. This stretch of good play for Alexandria is cementing its spot as one of the top teams in the 8AAA field.
A win against a section front runner like Apollo only added to that feeling for this group with just five games left on the regular-season schedule.
“We can now get home court advantage if we keep winning out,” Roderick said. “Apollo and Bemidji were the one and two, and we already lost to Bemidji, so if we lost this game we would have been the third seed or below...It just gives us more confidence. It just shows us that we’re at the top of the section, and we deserve to be here.”
ALEXANDRIA 33 41 - 74
ST. CLOUD APOLLO 34 33 - 67
ALEXANDRIA TOTALS - FG - 28-58; Three-point FG - 7-21; FT - 11-17; Assists - 17; Blocks - 1; Rebounds - 22; Steals - 7; Turnovers - 5
ALEXANDRIA - Carter Steffensmeier - 4 points, 1 assist, 2 rebounds; Carrson Jones - 6 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals; Ethan Patience - 14 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal; Isaac McCoy - 1 assist, 1 rebound; Kristen Hoskins - 9 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals; Erik Hedstrom - 11 points, 1 assist, 6 rebounds; Ryan Forster - 3 points; Colton Roderick - 27 points, 6 assists, 1 block, 6 rebounds, 2 steals
ST. CLOUD APOLLO SCORING - Puoch Dobuol - 3; Mohamed Mohamed - 3; Michael Gravelle - 15; Jalyn Williams - 2; Darien Lewis - 3; Chang Hoth - 23; Thomas Diew - 18