St. Cloud Apollo’s Thomas Diew had 12 points on Thursday night for the Eagles, but none bigger than the two that sent the Eagles to their third state tournament in program history.

In the final seconds of the Section 8AAA championship game at Melrose High School, Diew put up the game-winning layup with four seconds remaining that would eventually send the Alexandria boys basketball team home for good.

“When I shot it, I didn’t know it went in,” Diew said. “I was like, ‘Why are you guys all over me?’ I didn’t know it went in. It doesn’t feel real.”

During the play, Alexandria senior Isaac McCoy fouled Diew on his way to the rim. After a missed free-throw, Colton Roderick rushed down the court with the ball, took a last-second heave and watched this shot come up short. Top-seeded Apollo (21-8) won the Section 8AAA championship 72-70 over third-seeded Alexandria (20-9).

The St. Cloud Apollo boys basketball team celebrates its 72-70 Section 8AAA championship win over Alexandria at Melrose High School on Thursday night. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
The St. Cloud Apollo boys basketball team celebrates its 72-70 Section 8AAA championship win over Alexandria at Melrose High School on Thursday night. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

“For (Alexandria), I’m hurting, because I know how hard they worked to get here. But for our team, I’m happy,” Apollo head coach Jason Allen said. “These guys earned this. We were down at times because Alex played really well. We just kept fighting. It came down to that last play. I put my trust in our sophomore big man to be able to finish, and I’m glad he did.”

The Eagles overcame a 13-point first half deficit where, once again, sophomore Kristen Hoskins put on a show for Alexandria. He finished with 30 points to lead all scorers, including 17 in the first half.

“Kristen is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen,” senior Carrson Jones said. “He’s my best friend, and I love that kid. Nobody can stop him. He’s the most gifted athlete I’ve ever played with.”

Apollo went on a 13-6 run with under six minutes before the break. Puoch Dobuol had eight of the 13 points during the comeback stretch and finished with 16 on the night. The Eagled clawed their way back within one to close out the half after Chang Hoth buried a three.

Colton Roderick takes a three-pointer during Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Colton Roderick takes a three-pointer during Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

“They’re a good team,” Jones said. “They’re longer and taller than us. We knew it was going to be a battle, and we played with them.”

After a back-and-forth start to the second half, the Cardinals built up a six-point lead after an Erik Hedstrom three-pointer. On Apollo’s next possession, Jones forced a turnover by drawing a charge at the three-point line.

“I love getting on the ground and doing the dirty work. It’s what I do, and it gets our team motivated,” Jones said.

After Apollo cut into the lead, Roderick’s driving layup gave Alexandria a 70-66 lead. With time running out, the Eagles had their backs against the wall in foul trouble. Puoch fouled out of the game with under four minutes left to play. Apollo’s leading scorer, Chang Hoth, and Michael Gravelle each played the final minutes with four fouls.

Carrson Jones (left) puts his hand in Jack Hoth's face during Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Carrson Jones (left) puts his hand in Jack Hoth's face during Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

“We had to win in regulation,” Allen said. “The person that really sparked us was Jalyn Williams. For three straight games, he’s been the best defender in the section. He was the only guy that could stay in front of Kristen. I told him before the game that he’s going to have to be the guy to do that. With the game on the line, he stepped up.”

Hoskins may have finished with 30 points, but in the final 11:28 of the game, Williams limited him to only two.

Hoth cut Alexandria’s lead to four with a layup before Gravelle tied the game in the final two minutes. Apollo stopped Alexandria on its final four possessions and finished the game on a 6-0 run.

This year’s section championship was unlike any other. Not because of its chaotic finish, but because of the events leading up to it. The Melrose High School bleachers were open to only the family members of both teams. This is because of the latest local COVID-19 scare.

Earlier on Thursday, a resident in Stearns County was diagnosed with the virus. The only people allowed into the game were the teams, officials, media members and immediate family of the players.

“It was a shock for us that there weren’t going to be that many fans here,” Alexandria senior Ethan Patience said. “Before we left, we dialed in on what we needed to do. I don’t think we played in front of a crowd like that in some time, but I think we had our heads on straight and didn’t let it affect us.”

If there is a state tournament, the Eagles will represent Section 8AAA next week. Both Alexandria and Apollo had to overcome obstacles to get to the section championship game. For the Eagles, it was living up to the expectation of being the section’s top team.

“I’m a big Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut women's basketball head coach) fan,” Allen said. “He’s always talked about how you have to have players that deserve it. We have guys that deserve this. Last year we had high expectations that we didn’t live up to. When we lost last year, I told the guys we’d be back. We came back and we cashed in on it.”

Kristen Hoskins looks at his second-place medal after Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Kristen Hoskins looks at his second-place medal after Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

When Alexandria native and University of Minnesota commit Treyton Thompson decided to leave the program, Alexandria was no longer looked at as a favorite to win the section. After enduring the highs and lows of the regular season, the Cardinals came together when it mattered most.

“We knew it was going to be a different season with all of these new people coming in and losing Treyton,” Jones said. “We just wanted to come into this year and show that we have the talent to do this. We put that on the court every night. We were the underdogs.”

As a senior, Patience will have fond memories to look back on when he thinks of this team.

“I have a lot of love for everybody and how much we care for one another,” he said. “This is one of the better teams I’ve been a part of. We came from all different grades and friend groups in the beginning of the year, but we came together. I’m so impressed with how everyone played. We played this season to not only win, but prove people wrong after we lost some pieces. People said we wouldn’t be as good, and we played with something to prove.”

Ethan Patience meets with each player on his team after Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Ethan Patience meets with each player on his team after Alexandria's 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday night in the Section 8AAA championship at Melrose High School. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

ALEXANDRIA 43 27 - 70

ST. CLOUD APOLLO 42 30 - 72

ALEXANDRIA SCORING- Carrson Jones 5, Ethan Patience 5, Kristen Hoskins 30, Erik Hedstrom 7, Colton Roderick 23

ST. CLOUD APOLLO SCORING- Logan Johnson 2, Michael Grevelle 6, Jack Hoth 7, Jalyn Williams 2, Chang Hoth 27, Puoch Dobuol 16, Thomas Diew 12