Two-time defending Class A state champion Maranatha Christian Academy (26-4) captured the Section 4A title with an impressive 73-24 win against Legacy Christian Academy (16-13) March 8.
The contest, which was played at historic Hutton Arena on the St. Paul campus of Hamline University, was close in the early minutes.
Early on, Legacy sophomore Lexi Weddle sank a three-pointer to cut the Mustangs lead to 9-7 with 14:30 left in the opening half.
But just as quickly, the game changed and Maranatha led 14-7 less than two minutes later.
The Mustangs built a 41-18 halftime lead using confident defense to turn over Legacy Christian (16-13) and making baskets from all over the floor. Maranatha scored in transition, half-court offensive sets and the free throw line.
“We didn’t want to run with them,” Legacy’s second-year coach Dan Nelson said about the plan to slow the game down on offense and stay in front of them on defense.
Legacy couldn’t keep up with one of the state’s top Class A programs that has the complete package from outside shooting by Lexi Lee and Maddie Lee, an explosive point guard on both ends of the court in Alaina Jarnot and powerful interior players in Onye Osemenam and Chyna Stull.
Mustangs coach Jim Hammond told his team, “So what if they are running a stall offense or tie the game at 12.
“I told them they had to stay patient and do it with defense,” he said. “That was the thing, keeping them calm.”
“We knew we had the toughest game in the state tonight, knowing they were going for the three-peat but we gave the glory to God,” Weddle said about the Mustangs coming into the game.
According to Nelson, Maranatha is a well-rounded team and right now they’re the better team.
Heading into the game Nelson said, “Matching that experience won’t be easy. Getting all my players to relax and play with confidence will be the key to the game.”
Once the Mustangs scored quickly, Legacy started to feel the pressure in all aspects of the game.
Weddle stepped just inside the three-point line and sank the basket in front of the Lions fans to begin the second half and make it 41-20 in another big shot for the Lions future. She finished with a team-high nine points, while four Mustangs scored in double-digits, including Madison Lee’s 17 points to lead the way.
“You can see the experience,” Nelson said about the Mustangs. “They’re not rattled; they’re relaxed. They shoot those threes with hands in faces and they’re not pressuring or overplaying. They take quick shots and risks, but they’re confident and they’re not stressed. They’ve been here before.”
The game went into the running time with nearly 10 minutes left as a very young Lions team paid for its miscues on both ends of the court. Although the scoreboard was heavily one-sided, Weddle said she was proud of how they held their heads high in the end.
“I don’t think anyone went out there in the second half and accepted the loss,” she said. “We gave it our all and this year it might not have been enough, but it will be next year.”
Legacy won eight of its last nine games to reach the section finals. The Lions came back from double-digit deficits in both previous section games which only added to the experience Nelson hopes will translate to a similar position in the section final next season.
Legacy started two eighth-graders in center Hailie Richardson and guard Kayla Ruf. Junior Kiana Ruf, Kayla’s sister, ran the point with help from senior guard Renee Scheil, who also started. Weddle rounded out the starting line-up for the Lions.
“That’s huge for these girls to know they don’t need to hang their heads and give up, so that was good,” Nelson said.
Maranatha came in fresh off an 11-0 run through the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association Conference schedule and was the winner of eight straight games.
Maranatha won both regular season meetings, despite Legacy’s attempt to take away open shots from the outside in one meeting and the inside game of Osemenam in the other meeting. Neither game plan by Nelson worked for the Lions – 70-39 on Jan. 3 and 55-22 on Feb. 1.
The contrast of experience and confidence between the two teams was evident.
Legacy struggled to find an answer to the Mustangs offense, which worked the ball around the perimeter before pulling the trigger on an outside shot or worked the ball to the open player inside.
According to Hammond, the motivation was still alive in the second half. “They want to play and if they don’t we have a bunch of players who do,” Maranatha said of a team that graduated four and had five returning this season.
Road to the finals
Legacy reached the section final with three relatively close wins.
The Lions opened with a 54-22 win against No. 14 Community of Peace Academy followed by a 61-52 win over No. 6 Minneapolis North Community High School and a semifinal win over No. 2 Southwest Christian 48-39 in which Weddle and Kayla Ruf each had double-doubles.
Weddle finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Ruf had 14 and 11, respectively. The pair scored 21 of their 31 points in the second half, but it was the Lions’ defense which won the game.
Legacy collected 29 steals. Emily Kirby had seven, while Renee Scheil and Kiana Ruf each had six.
Maranatha’s route to the finals came a bit easier, opening with an eye-popping 127-5 win against bottom-seed Learning for Leadership Charter in the opening round.
Hammond said the one-sided game was the toughest thing he’s had to do in terms of how to face a still growing high school program. “Do we say, let’s not play our game – go to a zone defense, not shoot threes, not move the ball up the floor or do we try to keep them sharp,” he said.
He rotated three lines into the game with the starters playing 14 minutes total. Maranatha finished the game with seventh- and eighth-graders on the floor.
The Mustangs reached 90-plus points five times, but 127 points was a season high.
That was followed by a 70-26 win against No. 8 Minnesota Transitions Charter School and a 72-32 semifinal win against No. 5 Christ’s Household of Faith to reach the finals.
Despite the level of inexperience by Legacy, look for them to return to the section spotlight in the seasons to come. “Yeah. We’re very young and inexperienced but I think that just shows how much potential we have,” Weddle said.