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Hopkins pushes past Stillwater and into title game – Twin Cities


Stillwater coach Tim Peper noticed his team doing “a lot of really good things” during the Class 4A state semifinals on Thursday.

And then he’d look up at the scoreboard and the Ponies were down 16 points.

“I think that’s more of a testament to who Hopkins is,” he said.

Indeed. The Royals, who topped Stillwater 79-51 at Williams Arena, are the defending state champions and top tournament seed for a reason. They’re hyper talented with a brand of fast, pressure-filled basketball that no one can replicate or really prepare for — particularly not on a day’s notice after Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“You miss a bunny and it always inevitably ends up in a layup down there, so you do almost have to play a flawless game because of how talented they are,” Peper said. “They’re able to maximize every little mistake you make.”

That’s not to say Stillwater felt the Royals (28-2) are unbeatable. Stillwater senior forward Lexi Karlen said she’d love to play them again because she felt there were things the Ponies could have done better early in the contest.

Stillwater was outscored 34-16 over the final 12 minutes of the first half.

“They build their lead right away with transition buckets, so I think that kind of got us like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not used to this tempo.’ That kind of kicked us in the butt right away,” Karlen said. “I think if we just didn’t start out quite as slow, it could’ve been different.”

But that’s a consistent piece of Hopkins’ winning formula.

“We try to make teams play at our pace. A lot of teams aren’t used to the pressure. No team really pressures like us,” Hopkins guard Kelly Boyle said. “So, kind of speeding them up and punching them first and getting our lead early is big for us — applying pressure and turning that into offense.”

Stillwater handled the Royals’ press about as well as you can yet the Ponies still committed 18 turnovers.

“I wouldn’t say (we’ve seen) anything like them. They’re obviously really talented, really good defenders, probably some of the best in the state,” Ponies guard Amy Thompson said. “It was definitely a fast pace and everything was harder, but it was a fun challenge.”

Hopkins now gets a chance to defend its crown — a feat Royals coach Tara Starks felt some doubted her team would achieve when Hopkins lost a couple of regular-season games.

“But we all still believed,” she said. “We all knew that our goals were still there to be reached.”

Meanwhile, the fourth-seeded Ponies (26-6) will play for third. Not bad for a team Peper said was ranked around 20th in many preseason polls after graduating so much from last year’s team.

“I feel like at some points and in some games, we were the only people who believed that we were going to win,” Thompson said. “And for us to continue winning all through sections and our game (in the state quarterfinals against Lakeville North), I think, is really good.”

This year, the Ponies will graduate just one senior. Granted, it’s Karlen — a double-double machine and Minnesota Duluth commit — but the returning Ponies are armed with invaluable experience gained not only this week, but throughout Stillwater’s memorable playoff run.

“There’s some lessons of things that we have to pull from tonight, and next year when we’re practicing and getting ready for the season, remember things that we had to be better at tonight — and right off the bat, When we talk about those things, those are important,” Peper said. “Experience is so big.”

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