Thursday’s Class AAA semifinal was just the next stepping stone for the Columbia Heights basketball team—a club still riding a dream that just won’t quit.
No matter where you looked at Target Center in Minneapolis, the Hylanders’ 57-50 victory over New Prague that put them in Saturday’s 6 p.m. state championship game against Orono kept giving back to the Columbia Heights’ faithful.
There was senior guard Rodrick Logan, who swung an emphatic fist pump in the air after nailing a free-throw attempt in the waning moments to ice the contest.
“When I was younger I always dreamt of getting to the free-throw line when there was seconds left and the pressure was on,” he said.
Then there was senior Zach Lofton, who zig-zagged his way to the basket at will Thursday to the tune of 31 points. His teammate, Jordan Mills, stroked a 10-foot, turnaround jumpshot he’s practiced since his youth with ease while contributing 11 points and 16 rebounds.
Finally, there was the city and school district of Columbia Heights, which for one state appearance have two state wins in back-to-back days. Talk about fan support for this dream ride.
“You could have robbed Columbia Heights today or last Friday, if you wanted to plan a heist,” joked. “This is huge for this community.”
The Hylanders (25-6) have a shot to win an improbable Class AAA title on Saturday, a championship long overdue to the school itself but almost expected by this “family” in the locker room.
Coming off two straight section championship losses, Columbia Heights knew when they got together in August that this team—led by eight seniors—was different. This one had a shot to be special.
Not only did they reach state, but they didn’t become complacent. The Hylanders , rallied off two straight section and , and are a victory away from a championship. Their secret?
“Coach Braziel,” senior guard Keanu Glover said. “It’s never good to be satisfied; he always let us know that. We’re not satisfied just winning the section championship. We didn’t suffer from ‘we’re just happy to be here’ syndrome. We decided to stay focused as one group.”
Against a sharp-shooting New Prague team Thursday, one that upset top-seed St. Paul Johnson on Wednesday, Columbia Heights stayed strong.
The Hylanders contested shots all game, and even though the Trojans (24-7) connected on 11 3-pointers and went on a late run—cutting Columbia Heights’ 15-point second half lead down to three with one minute left—it wasn’t enough to end this dream run.
“I was holding back tears,” Braziel said as the final seconds ticked away. “But you get emotional more for them than for myself. ... We start in November and it will be April next week. You spend a lot of time with these kids, so when you do make it to this it’s impossible not to get emotional.”
At this point, the Hylanders’ run hardly seems impossible or improbable anymore. Now, it’s just the next step in a whirlwind ride.
“It’s an unreal feeling,” Glover said. “Even since August it’s all we’ve been talking about is the [Class] AAA championship. ... We all said, you know what? This is our senior year and we can do this.”
New Prague 21 29 — 50
Columbia Heights 30 27 — 57
Scoring — CH: Ben Glover 10, Zach Lofton 31, Jordan Mills 11, Rodrick Logan 1, FayMis Freeman 4, NP: Joe Hatch 10, Cale Girten 17, Alex Dittberner 2, Jed Kreuser 17, Luke Busch 3, Trevor O’Brien 1. Assists leaders — CH: B. Glover 1, Z. Lofton 1. Rebounds leaders — CH: J. Mills 16, R. Logan 5, F. Freeman 5. Turnovers — CH: 13, NP: 21. Fouls — CH: 10, NP: 17.