I admit to being cranky yesterday morning. I took a couple of steps out the front door and onto the sidewalk, and I immediately realized ice skates could provide a steadier walk to the garage than my shoes.
I gingerly made my way through the fog, found the garage and began driving toward Williams Arena—an expected trek of 30 minutes or less. About 55 minutes later my car was parked a couple blocks from the arena, but I was not pleased with the long journey that included stretches of 10 miles per hour traffic on north-bound 35W.
I arrived at Williams Arena about 9:30 a.m. without a media credential to watch the Class 4A Hopkins-Lakeville North quarterfinals girls’ state high school basketball tournament game. It’s been a long time since I paid my way into watch a pro, college or prep game in this town.
But guess what?
That $16 admission was money well spent. I had come to see the tourney favorite, 29-0 Hopkins, and the Royals’ phenom point guard, Paige Bueckers. Among those having a look at the extraordinarily gifted Bueckers was an assistant coach for the storied Connecticut women’s program. Legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, who practically wins NCAA titles like some people win conference crowns, has come to watch Bueckers many times.
The whole college basketball world wants the talented yet unselfish Bueckers to play hoops at their schools. Bueckers, a slightly built 6-foot-1 junior, is known as the best point guard in America’s high school class of 2020. This week she was a finalist for and just missed out on being selected the Gatorade Girls Basketball National Player of the Year. She was Gatorade’s Minnesota Player of the Year and the Star Tribune chose her as Metro Player of the Year this week—the second consecutive year the newspaper has honored her with the award.
Yesterday Bueckers performed like someone who receives that kind of attention in her team’s 68-46 win over Lakeville North. In 30 minutes on the floor she made 10 of 12 field goal attempts and eight of 10 free throws. She scored a game high 29 points while not forcing things to happen, and she could have totaled 40 had she not played so unselfishly. At one point the Hopkins student section let loose with chants of “MVP!”
Hers is a mystical style of play where she seems to spontaneously and naturally do the right thing, be in the right place—all while flowing with what is happening on the court. After the game yesterday Bueckers told Sports Headliners that she has a “God given ability that I know what I am doing, and I see…plays two steps ahead.”
Brian Cosgriff has been the Hopkins head coach for 20 years. His former great players include Nia Coffey who helped produce three state championships for the Royals. How do Coffey and Bueckers compare? Who is the best prep player Cosgriff has coached?
Cosgriff referred to Bueckers as the “most skilled” prep player he has had. Coffey is the best athlete. Then he said, “It’s like the age old debate, who is better (Michael) Jordan or LeBron (James)?”
Bueckers’ total profile includes sound fundamentals that even on defense make her a pleasure to watch. She doesn’t reach for the ball when she shouldn’t and she keeps her feet on the floor instead of jumping out of position. “Her feet are always in the right spot,” a Hopkins fan and Bueckers admirer said during the game.
The Royals were the dominant team yesterday, out scoring North by 12 points in the first half and 10 in the second. The one-sided game had the North student section yelling “Let’s play football” in reference to the school’s powerhouse 2018 team.
Cosgriff’s heart, though, may have skipped a beat early in the second half when Bueckers started limping and went to the bench for a short while. She was favoring her left knee and Cosgriff hopes his star player will be available for tonight’s semifinal tournament game against Centennial.
Bueckers dismissed the possibility of the injury preventing her from playing tonight. Understandably, Cosgriff was more cautious, indicative of how coaches take on a lot of worry during a lose and go home format like the state tournament.
Cosgriff has won six state titles. However, the Royals have also lost three consecutive state championship finals games. Bueckers, on the varsity since eighth grade, has experienced those crushing losses.
A determination to change that burns in Bueckers who said she thinks about winning the championship all the time. She uses words like energy and passion when discussing what it takes to be the best team possible. The drive and commitment to win is so evident.
Seemingly well liked by teammates, Bueckers feels a responsibility to lead a young roster and let more inexperienced players know even a single possession in a game could ultimately determine the Royals’ fate. “I’ve been thinking about it (the state title) three years in a row now…but I believe that we’ve worked so hard this year, and I think we can get it,” she said.
Bueckers wants to win for herself, teammates and “really bad” for Cosgriff who not only put a talented and balanced team on the floor yesterday but one that executed assignments while performing with focus and determination. “We want it for each other,” Bueckers said. “That’s the thing about this team. We’re so close. We’ve gone through ups and downs with each other but at the end of the day we stuck as one—so we want it so bad.”
Bueckers has already played on three USA basketball teams that have won gold medals. A state title this year and next would close out an almost fantasy prep career of team and individual recognition. Along the way Connecticut, Notre Dame, Minnesota or some other college will win the Bueckers recruitment process with a commitment. A verbal commitment, she said, could certainly come before starting her senior year at Hopkins.
The Gophers under new head coach Lindsay Whalen have talked to Bueckers about becoming a “hometown hero” by choosing Minnesota. Bueckers smiled at the mention of being a transformational player for the Gophers, but she didn’t give away any secrets as to who she favors among college choices. No, because right now she is focused on how she can help the Royals go a perfect 32-0 and snap that state title slump.
As for me, after watching the game, and talking with Bueckers and Cosgriff, I left Williams Arena and headed for the home office. The fog had lifted and so had my cranky outlook.
Enjoy a mostly basketball notes column, and also offering a Minnesota United update and tribute to the late Bob Klas Sr.
Junior guard-forward Amir Coffey is having his best season for the Golden Gophers, leading the team in points per game at 16 (seventh best in the Big Ten). The versatile 6-foot-8 former Hopkins star has closed the season impressively scoring 31, 32 and 23 points in the last three regular season conference games.
Coffey, who ranks fifth in league games only with a scoring average of 17.6, was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week yesterday with Indiana’s Juwan Morgan. It was the second consecutive week he has won the honor. He had a career high-tying 32 points and eight rebounds, three assists and three steals in Minnesota’s upset win over No. 11 Purdue a week ago. He followed that up with 23 points, six assists, three rebounds and a steal at Maryland on Friday.
Coffey’s scoring and playmaking will be vital in determining whether Minnesota wins its opening Big Ten Tournament game Thursday against Penn State. With either an NCAA Tournament or NIT postseason invitation coming soon for the Gophers, Coffey will play at least a couple more games in a Minnesota uniform, but his career could be closing fast.
Amir’s father, Richard Coffey, told Sports Headliners yesterday that in the weeks ahead the two of them want to determine NBA interest. “He’s a junior, so why not? He’ll look at the process (feedback),” Richard said. “But right now we’re not even talking about those things. We’re just trying to get through the season. There will be plenty of time to have those discussions after the season is over.”
A college underclassman can receive information from the NBA about potential draft status without sacrificing remaining eligibility. Coffey knows he has room for improvement but he is regarded as one of the Big Ten’s best players. His length and versatile skill set allows him to play multiple positions and score inside and out. That projects well in the modern NBA game.
Next season the Gophers could be without four guards who are presently on the roster. Dupree McBrayer and Brock Stull are seniors, while Coffey could leave school early and sophomore Isaiah Washington has prompted speculation he will transfer after not being used in a game since February 24.
Record setting rebounder Jordan Murphy is also counting down his days as a Gopher. The senior will be remembered not only for finishing second all-time in career rebounds in the Big Ten, but also for his character. Gophers radio analyst Spencer Tollackson travels with the team and has a perspective on Murphy many others in the media do not.
“He’s a great kid, man, one of the best,” Tollackson told Sports Headliners. “He’s up there with Andre Hollins for me, as two of my favorite Gophers in the 10 years that I’ve been broadcasting.”
On the court Murphy couldn’t have achieved his Gophers records of most rebounds and double-doubles without a superb work ethic. “He never loafs,” Tollackson said. “Even on nights where he has been off, or not had great numbers, it’s not for lack of effort.”
The Wisconsin Badgers finished their Big Ten regular season Sunday with a win at Ohio State, and the victory secured fourth place in the conference standings. With an overall record of 22-9 and league mark of 14-6, the Badgers are a cinch to be invited to the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin’s results of the last 20 years are in stark contrast to those of the Gophers. Dating back to the winter of 2000, only once have the Badgers not qualified for the “Big Dance,” and twice they have made it to the Final Four, per annual records on Wikipedia. During that period Wisconsin has won four conference titles and only twice finished lower than fourth place in the standings. Except for the 2017-18 season, Wisconsin has had winning overall and league records all those years.
Minnesota finished in seventh place this winter in the Big Ten with a 9-11 record, the 14th time the Gophers have been under .500 in the last 20 years. Coach Richard Pitino’s conference record in six years of regular season games is 40 wins, 70 losses.
Minnesota has won more than half of its Big Ten games only three times in the last 20 years, and the Gophers’ best finish in the conference standings has been fourth two times. The most recent over .500 success was two years ago with an 11-7 record. If the Gophers play in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, it will be their sixth appearance dating back to 2000.
Hopkins girls basketball coach Brian Cosgriff on junior point guard Paige Bueckers’ as yet unannounced potential college choice: “I think she has something in mind.”
Bueckers is among the elite young talents in the girls basketball world and is a finalist for the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Her 29-0 Hopkins team plays its opening game in the state tournament tomorrow against Lakeville North at Williams Arena.
The 15 inductees into the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame for 2019 are: Rocori coach Bob Brink; Bob Bruggers of Danube; New London-Spicer coach Mike Dreier; Norm Grow of Foley; Hal Haskins of Alexandria; Ronnie Henderson of Minneapolis Marshall University; Tracy Henderson of Minneapolis Patrick Henry; Kris Humphries of Hopkins; Aileen Just (Luther) of Rapidan; Coco Miller of Rochester Mayo; Kelly Miller of Rochester Mayo; Hopkins coach Kenny Novak Jr.; Minneapolis Marshall University coach Ed Prohofsky; Kelly Skalicky of Albany; and Bob Zender of Edina.
The inductees will be introduced to the crowd at halftime of the March 26 Timberwolves-Clippers game at Target Center. An inaugural class of 14 was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. More at Mnhsbaskteballhall.com
You can bet the Minnesota United organization is excited about the team’s 2-0 regular season start in the MLS. After two weeks the club has made history with franchise firsts in winning an MLS opener, consecutive road wins and shutting out an opponent on the road. Now in year three of MLS play, the Loons are over .500 for the first time.
The clubs has a league leader in Darwin Quintero who is tied for the most goals with two and is second in assists with three. He has been named to the MLS Team of the Week in the first two weeks of the season.
Condolences to family and friends of Bob Klas Sr. who passed away at age 91 in suburban St. Paul last week. Bob was a friend and inspiration to many including at the Tapemark Company in West St. Paul, an organization he helped build into a major entrepreneurial success.
For nearly 50 years Bob’s name was attached to the Tapemark Charity Pro-Am in the Twin Cities. The inspiration for the tournament was his daughter Frances Klas, who was born mentally retarded in 1951. Bob and wife Sandy Klas learned about organizations available to assist children like Frances, and they wanted to help raise awareness and funds for them.
To accomplish those goals, Bob started the tournament with Tapemark company partner Tom Cody and over the years the Pro-Am has raised millions of dollars to assist agencies serving Minnesotans with developmental disabilities. Bob’s legacy of business success and unselfish charity work will long be remembered.
In a telephone interview with Sports Headliners, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor made his feelings known about interim head coach Ryan Saunders.
Is the 32-year-old who took over for Tom Thibodeau in early January a strong candidate to have the job on a permanent basis after this season ends? “Certainly,” answered Taylor.
So there’s a good chance Saunders becomes the head coach this spring?
“I think that’s fair,” Taylor said. “He is sure the leading candidate at this point because we haven’t talked to anybody (else). I am not sure (if others will be interviewed); we’ll see how that ends up at the end of the year, but I certainly want to give him every opportunity we can.”
Saunders’ record as interim coach is 12-14 going into tonight’s home game against the Knicks. While the record is under .500 and the team is a long shot to make the playoffs, Taylor takes an understanding view toward Saunders.
Injuries have characterized this season for the Wolves, and Taylor pointed out since Saunders has been directing the team there has yet to be a game when his five preferred starters were all available. Even now elite defender and forward Robert Covington isn’t recovered from a knee injury and last night the team’s Western Conference All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t finish the game because of a knee problem.
The team’s struggles include a leaky defense. In each of the last six games Minnesota has given up 120 points or more, with opponents four times scoring 130 or more. Taylor believes an offseason and training camp with more teaching time would allow Saunders to achieve better defensive results next season.
“I think that Ryan has been working…to change (improve) the defense but I am realistic in that he probably needs…a summer program to change things,” Taylor said. “I talked to him about it.”
Taylor describes himself as “encouraged” by Saunders’ job performance. Things that have made an impression on the owner include play calls, ball movement, pace of play and communications.
Saunders’ father Flip, who died in 2015, is the winningest coach in Wolves franchise history. The communications skills of both father and son are evident to Taylor. “I just think that’s very important,” Taylor said. “He (Ryan) is open to ideas and trying things. I already see that in our talks…similar with Flip.
“Before a game started I used to talk to Flip about what are you going to do against this team? Flip had a plan and he could share it with you.”
Ryan is the youngest head coach in the NBA in 40 years. He refers to the owner as “Mr. Taylor.” Yet Saunders seems to have the respect of his players and certainly that of the owner. Much of that has to do with 10 years of NBA experience previously as an assistant coach, and growing up as the son of a successful and intense basketball father.
“He’s just got a great basketball mind,” Taylor said of Ryan. “He learned a lot from his dad.”
Taylor was fond of Flip and has known Ryan for a long time. The personal feelings of Taylor are evident toward Saunders who has never been a head coach before.
“…I am hopeful that it all works out for Ryan because I like him as a person particularly, and I want all our people (in the organization) to be successful,” Taylor said.
Towns scored 40 points and had 16 rebounds in the team’s win over the Wizards last night. It was his 43rd double-double of the season and his third 40-plus point performance, all of which have come in the last five games. “Certainly, I am just really pleased with Karl and what he has done,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s Minnesota Lynx, who have won four WNBA championships, will be without Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen this season. Their departures, the owner said, mean “people have to be a little patient” as the club reorganizes.
The boys’ state hockey tournament never disappoints for entertainment and storylines. The energy of players was typified by Eden Prairie, a group that played three overtimes before winning on Thursday, and in the Class 2A title game Saturday night lost in overtime to Edina.
The Class 1A Friday overtime game with top-seeded Mahtomedi and Greenway was a classic metro versus small town matchup. “I don’t think it gets that loud (crowd noise) for a Wild game,” an observer told Sports Headliners.
Greenway won Friday, but lost the Class 1A title matchup to St. Cloud Cathedral, the first time a St. Cloud school has won a state tournament hockey title. To win that championship in a seemingly ever-improving Class 1A was impressive.
Pat McKenzie, coach of the Saint John’s men’s basketball team that advanced to the Division III NCAA Tournament earlier this month, speaks to the CORES lunch group Thursday at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd. For reservations and other information, contact Jim Dotseth by tomorrow, email@example.com.