Yes, there was devastation in the eyes of each Columbia Heights boys basketball player after Saturday’s 85-76 loss to Orono in the Class AAA state championship. The thrill of the Hylanders’ run ended at Target Center with an inability to find an offensive rhythm.
But even in defeat the Hylanders felt the magic that brought them on a nine-game winning streak and their first state tournament appearance in 81 years.
On Saturday night there was belief that likely wasn’t with the program for much of those eight decades—a belief that this wasn’t the end.
“We came this far—81 years is a long time,” senior FayMiss Freeman said. “So I don’t care if we took third place, second, fourth. We still made it. We still came here. I’d be happy if we were No. 1, but there’s always next year.”
It seemed every possible obstacle was in Columbia Heights’ way Saturday. The Hylanders missed 11 free throws, went 1-for-8 from 3-point range and watched senior Zach Lofton—the second-leading scorer in the state this season–go to the bench with four fouls with 11:50 remaining in the game.
Yet the Hylanders (25-7) endured. Columbia Heights trailed by as many as nine points in the first half but cut the lead to two by halftime, and they made two second-half runs that gave them a six-point lead with 14:44 left and cut Orono’s 13 point lead down to four with 3:52 remaining.
Each time the Spartans (27-4) found a way to answer. Hylanders coach Willie Braziel said every time Columbia Heights made a run, Orono responded with easy baskets that “crippled the defense.”
“Most people try to slow (tempo) down to slow us down, but they changed it,” Braziel said. “They ran and pushed the ball up against us and caught us by surprise. We did not answer that.”
Spartans coach Barry Wohler said his team prepared for that tempo because he knows how dangerous the Hylanders’ speed can be.
“Coach Braziel and I like to run the same type of amoeba defense, and we talk about how we are very similar,” Wohler said. “We know how to attack each other, and we knew it had to be an up and down game. We just really wanted to make life difficult for Lofton and (Ben) Glover and always have help when they drove.”
Lofton finished with 19 points but never found a rhythm. He was 2-for-8 from the floor in the first half and finished shooting 33 percent overall.
Glover and fellow junior Jordan Mills picked up the slack. Each finished with 17 points in the contest, while Keanu Glover chipped in 12 points.
In the end, Braziel said the offense’s uneasiness cost the Hylanders. He said the team used three of its 16 offensive sets in the game.
“That’s how bad it was today,” Braziel said. “We didn’t play well, we really didn’t. But Orono played outstanding.”
Yet Freeman, a departing senior, was optimistic outside the locker room Saturday night. This magical ride gives him hope that the Hylanders will pass the state tournament torch next season.
“We’ve got a few sophomores, juniors. We’ve got some good people next year,” Freeman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it to state next year.”
That’s the type of expectation Braziel hopes will blossom in his basketball program.
“The hope for any coach is this will change the culture for kids aspiring to make the state tournament,” he said. “It’s never impossible. That helps with their offseasons. It helps them academically improve and play hard. That’s our goal.”
Editor's note: See .
Orono 34 51 — 85
Columbia Heights 32 44 — 76
Scoring — CH: Ben Glover 17, Zach Lofton 19, Keanu Glover 12, Jordan Mills 17, Sami Hadzajlic 2, Rodrick Logan 4, FAyMis Freeman 4, Dominique Galloway 1, ORO: Kyle Mileusnic 3, Brady Wohler 23, Jeremy Borg 18, Erik Peterson 11, Jordan Smith 21, Chase Myhran 5, Daniel Drew 2, Mitchell Horner 1. Assists leaders — CH: B. Glover 2, Z. Lofton 2. Rebound leaders — CH: J. Mills 11, K. Glover 6, Z. Lofton 6. Turnovers — CH: 10, ORO: 18. Fouls — CH: 20, ORO: 23.
CLASS AAA ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
Ben Glover (Columbia Heights), Jordan Mills (Columbia Heights), Jordan Smith (Orono), Jeremy Borg (Orono), Brady Wohler (Orono), Shelby Moats (Waconia), Ben Kortuem (Waconia), Joe Hatch (New Prague), Jed Kreuser (New Prague).
**Note: Zach Lofton (Columbia Heights) was removed from the All-Tournament team. Lofton left the court immediately after the game and missed shaking hands with Orono.
For more on the Hylanders' run on Fridley Patch: