This season’s basketball Cinderella story might be reserved for the No. 4 seeded Andover boys’ basketball team which knocked off top-seed St. Francis 76-58 in the Section 7AAAA semifinals March 11.
Top-seed St. Francis enjoyed a first-round bye, while Andover hosted No. 5 Blaine in a game that appeared to be pivotal in building confidence in the Huskies’ play on both ends of the court.
That confidence carried over to the semifinal game and as Andover senior Cameron Wold put it, the team is playing its best ball at the right time.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” Wold said. “It’s a big win and we hope we can take that next one and play in Target Center next week.”
Huskies junior guard Connor Wilkie led the way with 25 points and teammate Jake McNallan added 21 points. Kyle Kettler had 16 points and could have added to that total if it wasn’t for early foul trouble.
Wilkie didn’t make a three-pointer against Blaine so when his first long-range bucket fell, he had an idea good things would follow.
“We were opportunistic offensively, but I think the defense is what won it for us tonight,” Andover coach Nick Tibesar said. “St. Francis is a really good team that has put up some big numbers all season and have some guys who can score. So being able to neutralize that and keep them to 58 points is what I’m most proud of and their ability to do that.”
On the Huskies defensive end, Wilkie drew the Saints junior Jake Johnson and while Johnson combined with Saints guard Austin Carlson to lead the team with 13 points each, the baker’s dozen total wasn’t enough to carry the Saints past the semifinals.
“It was a challenge guarding Jake, but I was prepared for it,” Wilkie said. “He is very capable of slashing from the wing and caught me a little off guard the first time.”
St. Francis coach Ryan Hauge attributed a slow start to being up-tight and the team’s inability to grab key rebounds to stop the Huskies on both ends of the floor.
“Give Andover credit, they beat us up inside,” he said.
Junior Jake Johnson and sophomore Blake Moreno failed to make those key plays to stay close, according to Haugen.
“Blake didn’t play very well,” Haugen said. “You hope a sophomore is going to handle that moment well, but Blake struggled.”
He thought Johnson was better, but Andover’s defense rose to the occasion to disrupt the Saints’ inside game plan, Haugen said. “Wilkie’s a good player and you can tell that he’s the kind of kid who rises to the occasion and certainly did last night,” he said.
Andover edged St. Francis 14-4 in second chance points which is directly related to how hard the Huskies worked for every point.
Carlson, a key guard to what the Saints wanted to do, fouled out with 2:39 left and the score 59-49.
Coming into the game, each team appeared to be going in opposite directions with Andover (8-19) losing the final four games of the regular season before a first-round 57-49 win against No. 5 Blaine.
Those losses came against four high-quality programs, including No. 3 Park Center, No. 6 Hopkins, Maple Grove and an 88-86 loss to Champlin Park to close the regular season March 1.
Andover had one game in 10 days leading up to the semifinal contest.
The Huskies were 3-11 since Jan. 15 and had lost six straight games in January.
Tibesar said the record was deceptive of the true ability of his squad. “The Northwest Suburban [Conference] is tough and we had Hopkins twice and our theory is that we get battle tested and take our lumps and get ourselves ready to go come section time,” he said. “I never doubted our guys’ ability to play in big games like this. We had times that didn’t look so good, but they had the ability to stay with it even though they had some losses.”
St. Francis was a streaky team all season. The Saints opened 11-0 before winning only once in a span of 10 games and once again found their winning touch to finish the regular season with five consecutive wins.
Haugen said he’d like the chance for a replay, “but that’s not how competition works, there isn’t a reset button.
“I think our kids feel the same way and I have a feeling with a lot returning we will see each other again,” he said.
The early game of the semifinal doubleheader at North Branch High School wasn’t the only upset of the evening since No. 3 seed Forest Lake dominated No. 2 Duluth East 62-37 in the late game to set-up a Forest Lake/Andover section final March 15.