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Ready for state? Royals rumble into Target Center Wednesday

Mario Franco and the Woodbury Royals travel Wednesday to the Target Center for their quarterfinal state match-up against Eden Prairie. Submitted photo by Daniel Runze

On occasion, Scott Swansson likes to crack wise.

So when he deadpanned that Woodbury's March 13 Section 4AAAA championship win as "one of my top four wins ever," you can bet it meant one thing: it was the fourth such game that sent his Royals to state.

This time, it was familiar foe Stillwater who fell to the Royals, 52-44 - one year after Woodbury dispatched Roseville in the section title game.

Not everyone's reaction to the win was as tongue-in-cheek.

"I couldn't ask for anything better," senior Woodbury forward Mario Franco said after the game.

The 25-4 Royals on Saturday learned their quarterfinal opponent in the state 4A basketball tournament will be Section 2AAAA champion Eden Prairie.

The No. 4-seeded Royals will face the No. 5-seeded Eagles at noon Wednesday, March 20, at Target Center. Eden Prairie (21-8) gained its state berth after defeating section opponent Bloomington Jefferson.

The winner of the quarterfinal match faces either No. 1-seed Apple Valley (28-1) or its opponent, unseeded Brainerd (28-1) at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 20.

This is Woodbury's second-straight trip to state and seventh overall. Last year, the Royals fell 82-75 to Hopkins in the first round.

With one game of state tournament experience under his belt from 2012, Woodbury senior guard Renard Suggs said the team is confident heading in.

"We know how to play in the Target Center and we know how to win," he said. "I feel that we can play with anyone in the state."

In the section championship, Suggs led the way for Woodbury with 21 points, including five 3-pointers.

Stillwater started with an early lead that began to crumble after junior guard Matt Ambriz got hot late in the first half.

He forced a steal and drove to the hoop, where he was fouled. After making both free throws, putting Woodbury up 20-19, he drained a 3-pointer three plays later with 1:40 left in the half - the final bucket in the first frame - to give the Royals a 27-23 halftime lead.

Suggs and Ambriz, who finished with 16 points in the game, came out firing in the second half; a Suggs 3-pointer gave the Royals their largest lead at 39-26.

"We had to outrun them a lot," said senior Diallo Powell, who finished with seven points.

The Ponies executed their patient, deliberate offensive attack that drew the game to within four with about two minutes remaining, but it was as close as Stillwater would get.

Woodbury's Rob Claypool, Powell, Franco and Ambriz all sank clutch free throws in the closing minute to help seal the game for Woodbury.

The win was less of a nail biter than Swansson experienced a year ago, when his Royals fended off Roseville in an overtime section championship game - a win he called "surreal."

He said the experience of playing in last year's tournament raises expectations now for Woodbury.

"It gives us a little bit of confidence that we can play with the big boys instead of just being happy to be there," he said.

Senior guard Rob Claypool agreed.

"I feel like we can go a little bit farther (at state)," he said.

To do that, the Royals will first have to overcome Eden Prairie, which boasts junior Andre Wallace, the team's leading scorer, and senior guard Grant Schaeffer, who rained down 41 points against Eastview in the 2012 state tournament.

"They're a real solid basketball team," Swansson said.

Drawing the fourth seed in the tournament, however, left something of a sour taste in the coach's mouth.

"I think we should have had the third seed," he said of the spot that belongs to 22-7 Edina.

Woodbury beat Edina in a December head-to-head matchup, capping a four-game losing streak that began the Hornets' season. Edina's quarterfinal opponent at state will be Section 7AAAA champion Andover, which has compiled 10-19 record.

"I'm kind of tired of not getting enough respect over in the east," Swansson said. "But you've got to beat the best to be the best, so let 'er rip."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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