New Life succumbs to Minnehaha in section finals
ST. PAUL — Minnehaha Academy is a pressure cooker.
Their speed and athleticism puts teams on their heels. The full-court press swarms like locusts. Every loose ball and rebound opportunity becomes a sprint that teams just won't win against the Redhawks.
"They have a next-level, elite type of team," said New Life Academy head coach Kevin Kiekhoefer. "Especially that top seven that they run. ... They're number one in the state for a reason."
The third-seeded Eagles tried to slow things down. Ultimately, Minnehaha's pressure proved to be overwhelming as the top-seeded, top-ranked and defending state champion Redhawks clinched a state berth with a 77-34 victory in the Section 4AA championship at Washington Technical Magnet School.
"It was our goal all season long to work to get to this point and we had a lot of growing to do to put ourselves in a position to play in this game," Kiekhoefer said. "Pressure has been our Achilles' heel all season long. We were working hard to try to cure it for this game but it ended up being a little too much. I loved the way they competed."
With a roster featuring a Division I recruit in JaVonni Bickham (Denver) and a top-five prospect nationwide in the class of 2020 in Jalen Suggs, finding a point of attack is tough. But, the Eagles figured where they had an advantage was their size. So the plan was to go slow, set up the half-court offense and try to gain traction in the post.
"They battled hard and took advantage of the opportunities we had," Kiekhoefer said. "Minnehaha's defense really limits your opportunities so when you got one, you have to make the most of it."
Senior Drew Wynia did find some room to maneuver with an NLA-best 17 points.
"They have so many long defenders. Their guards, their bigs. They're long, athletic defenders," Wynia said. "It's tough to find space, but I tried my best to find the space and make tough shots. It's what you got to do against them."
The Eagles cut Minnehaha's lead to 27-17 with 4 minutes, 20 seconds left before half after a pair of Tate Hullett free throws.
Then, Minnehaha got going. And NLA was not going to stop them the rest of the half as the Redhawks scored 17 straight points for a 44-17 halftime lead. The second half offered little reprieve after Minnehaha's run.
Suggs scored 21 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, followed by 11 points from 6-foot-10 post Chet Holmgren and nine from Donovan Smith.
"It's tough; all their guys can play at that pace," Wynia said. "If that's not your game, it's tough to stay with them because they're runnin' and gunnin'."
Following Wynia, Michael Reader finished with five points, followed by four from Hullett.
Winning 20-plus games for the third straight season, the Eagles (20-9) say goodbye to six seniors: Evan Atkinson, Mark Rygh, Hullett, Eli Gorter, Wynia and Zach Thor.
"This was a group that, outside of Drew, none of them got many varsity opportunities up until this season," Kiekhoefer said. "So for this to be my first year and be able to work with this group and have a bunch of these players who really didn't know how good they could be ... it's been fun. It's been a joyous journey to see them blossom into the players you saw tonight and in the section tournament."
"I'm so thankful for my team and how hard they worked every day," Wynia said. "For my senior season, I couldn't have asked for anything better. I'm extremely thankful."