Boys basketball: Alexandria gives defending state champion Totino-Grace a tough test in state semifinals
Totino-Grace defeated Alexandria in the state semifinals but had to overcome early trouble to do so. Alexandria plays in the third-place game on Saturday at 2 p.m.
MINNEAPOLIS - The Alexandria boys basketball team said before Thursday's MSHSL Class AAA State Tournament semifinal game against the defending state champions, the Totino-Grace Eagles, that they weren't going to back down from the challenge.
And on Thursday, they most certainly didn't and they played their hearts out.
The fifth-seeded Cardinals gave the top-seed Eagles a run for their money. They found themselves in the driver's seat with a 38-33 halftime lead at the Target Center.
But the Eagles got hot offensively in the second half, shooting 68.2 percent from the field in those final 18 minutes, which led them to a win over the Cardinals, 70-59.
"There probably wasn't a whole lot of people outside of our locker room that thought we had a chance except us," Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said. "You watch these NCAA games and high school games, and it's kids at the end of the day, and they're susceptible to mistakes. I thought these guys executed our game plan well and competed until the end."
Alexandria (25-5) led 56-55 with about six minutes left in the game, and Totino-Grace (23-8) went on a 15-3 run in the final six minutes to earn the win and push it back to the state title game.
"I thought the biggest difference was they went on a few runs that were a little bit bigger than our runs," Witt said. "I thought we countered their runs very well. They made a few more in the second half and put a little bit of pressure on us at the rim with dribble drives and size. On those drives, our wings sank in, and they made some shots off of that. We were a little bit inefficient offensively for a couple of stretches that really exploited and made our defense, at times, a little bit more noticeable."
Totino-Grace outscored Alexandria 37-21 in the second half.
"They run that really unique zone defense where it looks like a 2-3 but then shifts into a 3-2 as the ball reverses, and we tried to vacate the middle of the zone in the second half to allow for more cutting instead of stationary catches," Totino-Grace head coach Nick Carroll said. "They do a good such a good job rotating from different spots. We just wanted to try to give it a different look and open the middle of the floor more. I thought we also turned it up on defense, and that helped us on offense."
The Eagles had a 21-12 lead with 8:54 to go in the first half, but the Cardinals went on a 15-2 to take a 26–23 lead with four minutes left in the first half, and they led by as much as seven in the first half.
"This morning, we had a really good practice," Alexandria junior forward Grayson Grove said. "When you play a big-name team like Totino-Grace, obviously they get their best shot from everyone, and we're one of those teams that will give you our best shot no matter what. We were locked in and came out hot. There were just a few runs by them, and we couldn't get some shots to fall at the end and some stops."
Part of the reason the Cardinals did have the lead at halftime is that they held Ohio State commit Taison Chatman to five points in the first half.
"Our zone was very effective early," Alexandria sophomore forward Chase Thompson said. "We got some good turnovers on a transition a little bit. I think they were struggling early with a little bit, and they kind of settled in."
Chatman and the Eagles responded well, though, to the adversity at hand.
Chatman finished the game with a near double-double, 12 points, and nine assists.
Tommy Humphries paced a balanced Eagle offense with 16 points, while Isaiah Johnson finished with 15.
Grove paced the Cardinal offense with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
Thompson finished second on the team in scoring with 16 points.
"That Alexandria team is awesome," Carroll said. "I think this is the first of what we hope is many games against them in the next couple of years. It's amazing what coach Witt has done with that program. I don't know if I've ever spent as much time on tape in 48 hours as I did for this one. Forrest does an unbelievable job."
The Cardinals showed big trust in some of their young players on Thursday as freshmen guards Mason Witt, coach Witt's son, and Talan Witt, coach Witt's nephew, played big minutes in the game.
"We have multiple guys that are capable of bringing the ball, and I thought we did a very good job in the full court against their pressure defense," Coach Witt said. "We talked about how we didn't do a great job with that against Mankato East on Tuesday (in the state quarterfinals); we just got ourselves in some bad spots. So I think for all of our guys in this situation, it's just about gaining your composure, being confident in what you're doing, and dictating the pace of where you're going to go instead of getting sped up at one speed. I think a lot of that was just with Mason and all of our point guards was just resetting the confidence button and knowing that I can get this, I can handle this."
Alexandria is now set to play the No. 2 seed Orono in the Class AAA third-place game on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Gangelhoff Center in St. Paul.
The No. 3 seed DeLaSalle (26-5) beat Orono, 67-61, in Thursday's semifinals.
"We dealt with the pressure really well for the most part today, but we have to get out of those stretches where they cause us to turn it over, and they get a few points off of it," Alexandria senior guard Jaxon Schoenrock said. "We have to eliminate those and keep bringing energy. We also can't be afraid of anybody again. We came in and played hard; that's no question. We have to do that again on Saturday."
Orono (25-6) beat Alexandria earlier in the season, 89-78, at the Winter Lakes Classic on Feb. 4, 2023, in Alexandria.
Saturday's third-place game will be broadcasted on NSPN.tv with a subscription required.
Alexandria - 38 21 - 59
Totino-Grace - 33 37 - 70
ALEXANDRIA TEAM STATS - FG - 21/40; 3–T; 10/24; FT - 7/11; Rebounds - 20; Assists - 13; Steals - 5; Blocks - 5; Fouls 12; Turnovers - 12
TOTINO-GRACE TEAM STATS - FG - 28/51; 3-PT - 7/12; FT - 7/11; Rebounds - 29; Assists - 19; Steals - 9; Blocks - 1; Fouls - 12; Turnovers - 7
ALEXANDRIA PLAYER STATS - Trevin Hoepner - 1 assist, 1 rebound; Grayson Grove - 21 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks; Chase Thompson - 16 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assist, 1 block; Jaxon Schoenrock - 8 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist; Bralyn Steffensmeier - 6 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists; Dawson Roderick - 1 rebound, 2 assists; Mason Witt - 6 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist; Talan Witt - 2 points, 1 rebound
TOTINO-GRACE PLAYER STATS - Tommy Humphries - 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal; Taison Chatman - 12 points, 3 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals; Patrick Bath - 14 points, 8 rebounds; Zy’Lerre Stewart - 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 rebound, 1 steal; Isaiah Johnson - 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals; Tyler Wagner - 3 points; Chance Watley - 7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals; Jayden Livingston - 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist