Minneota girls basketball overcomes abrupt ending to championship repeat bid with perfect season, third overall title in program history
MINNEOTA — The Minneota girls basketball team watched the final seconds wind down and, as the final buzzer sounded, rushed the floor at Target Center, jumping up and down and embracing one another. The Vikings were on top of the high school basketball world once more, as Minneota’s 48-45 victory over Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the Class A championship game on April 9 closed the book on a perfect 25-0 season and the team’s third overall championship as a program.
But the Vikings’ journey towards the championship was far from perfect and had their fair share of challenges, starting in March of 2020. After winning their first championship since 2013 in the 2018-19 season, Minneota had high expectations to make a run for a repeat. The Vikings cruised through the regular season to the tune of a 26-1 record before rolling to its third consecutive Section 3A title. After taking down Red Lake in the Class A quarterfinals on March 12, 2020, there was increasing talks of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the semifinal and championship rounds. The next day, the decision was made to call off the rest of the girls state tournament as well as cancel the boys tournament the following week. Just like that, Minneota’s season and chances for a second straight championship, were over.
Minneota coach Chad Johnston said the team was just finishing up its pregame talks when they found out the news.
“We were in the locker room and had just finished our meeting with our host from state who was telling us all of the finer details of where to go, where to lineup, etc. I was talking with the team and then one of our assistant coaches came in and pulled me aside and one of the representatives from state said they had just got contacted and were told to shut down the tournament,” Johnston said. “I went and told the girls and they thought I was joking. I told them that I wasn’t and some of them didn’t know how to react.”
After several months of stay-at-home orders, quarantining, shutdowns and more, high school sports gradually made its way back and the basketball season would officially get underway on Jan. 14. While players, coaches and fans were excited to have the season back, there were restrictions, including athletes being required to wear masks during practices and games and limited attendance for fans.
The Vikings picked right back up where they left off and jumped out to a 9-0 record, averaging roughly 70 points per game. Then Minneota squared off against Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa on Feb. 20 in a matchup that pitted two Top 5 teams with identical 9-0 records against each other. It was a low-scoring, back-and-forth battle, but the Vikings were able to survive with a 42-38 victory to maintain their perfect season. Minneota then cruised through the remainder of its regular season, earning an 18-0 record before averaging 66 points per game while holding opponents to no more than 49 points in the Section 3A tournament to put the Vikings back in the state tournament.
Minneota saw two very different games to start the tournament, though, using a massive 31-0 run to take control against Houston in the quarterfinals but had to battle back from a slow start and a three-point halftime deficit to defeat Mountain Iron-Buhl 54-53 in the semifinals. The Vikings would then face a familiar face in its final game, as BBE had also survived in the tournament to advance to the championship clash.
BBE’s only loss on the season had been to Minneota and the Jaguars were looking to return the favor, with a strong senior class leading the charge. Both teams struggled on offense to start, with Minneota only holding a 9-6 lead with 10:50 left in the first half, but the Vikings got into a rhythm and found success from beyond the arc, taking a double-digit lead at 28-18 going into halftime.
The Vikings would push its advantage to as many as 16 at 40-24 with 11:27 left in the game, but BBE wasn’t going down without a fight, and rallied to pull to within two at 43-41 with a minute to play. After trading baskets, Minneota’s Abby Hennen would get fouled and head to the line with the Vikings up one with two seconds left. She made both free throws and BBE’s last-second attempt was off the mark, sealing the victory and championship for Minneota.
“It feels good; I think every senior hopes to end their season with a run like this and it’s a nice feeling,” Hennen said after the game. “It’s kind of crazy that we were able to have a perfect season, too. I don’t think I had one since I started playing on varsity.”
Minneota has had tremendous success over the past several years on the court, amassing a record of 340-41 (.877) with three championships since the 2012-13 season under Johnston. And it doesn’t look like it plans to slow down anytime soon. The Vikings will graduate two seniors in Abby Hennen and Abby Rost, but bring back the majority of its roster from this season.
Despite losing Abby Hennen and Abby Rost to graduation, Johnston said they will rely on their experienced players to lead the way while also having younger players step up into larger roles next year.
“We’ve strived as a program to keep the success going and we’ve had some talented kids graduate and have been able to find ways to fill in their roles,” Johnston said. “We’ll have a good foundation back next year and we’ll need the role players to step up and keep the momentum going.”