MINNEAPOLIS — “That was fun.”
Calvin Wishart may have whispered to himself, after slapping hands with fans and hugging his grandfather, the most underrated statement the ghosts of Target Center have ever heard.
Wishart’s understatement Saturday night was calm, kind of like the way he guided the Tigers to their first state basketball championship in school history just minutes earlier.
“It hasn’t really set in,” Wishart said in the postgame press conference. “Watching the state tournament all those years, you think about how great it would be to win a state championship.”
In a game that would see one school win its first title, Delano completed its unexpected run through the Class AAA tournament with a 65-61 win over Columbia Heights in front of a crowd of orange, thanks to the Tigers’ Orange Brigade.
“It was crazy seeing the Target Center half full of orange,” said Delano senior Keegan O’Neill. “It was great to have all the support from everyone.”
That calm Wishart used to speak to himself came moments after he, his teammates and all those fans in orange went crazy as the final seconds ticked off the game clock.
The championship is the first for a Delano team in 20 seasons, since the Tiger dancers won their their third consecutive jazz-funk title in 1998.
Facing the final 18 minutes of the season, the Tigers needed a fast start to the second half to erase a first half that saw them shoot just 34.6 percent from the field (9-for-26) and 8.3 percent (1-for-12) from 3-point land. Delano trailed 33-20 at the half.
“We talked about that there is no 13-point shot and it was one possession at a time,” said Delano coach Terry Techam of the halftime speech. “Our goal was to get a stop and to make sure we get a good shot. We have good shooters, and they were going to keep taking them if they were open.”
Delano got that fast start, in the form of a Derek Techam 3-pointer from the right baseline 11 seconds in, and kept the heat on the Hylanders, chipping away and eventually taking the lead back for good, 50-48, on Keegan O’Nell layup with eight minutes to go in the game.
Thanks in big part to the second-half heroics of O’Neill, who scored 22 of his game-high 30 points in the final 17 minutes, the Tigers built the lead to as many as six points, and held on for the four-point win.
“I can’t believe my career ended with a state championship. This is by far the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of,” said O’Nell.
O’Neill gathered 12 rebounds to finish with a double-double and earned the player of the game honor in what was the senior’s final game.
“Keegan was unbelievable,” said coach Techam. “What a night to have the best game of you career in the biggest game of your life.”
O’Neill even impressed Delano’s all-tine leading scorer.
“I told Keegan during the ceremony, ‘I’ve never been so proud of you,’” said Wishart. “I think he is one of the most underrated players in the state. He stepped up the way he should and proved to a lot of people what he could do, tonight.”
Delano shot 50 percent (13-for-26) from the field and 50 percent (2-for-4) from 3-point land in the second half.
Delano’s offense scored 45 points in the second half, and its defense did enough to frustrate the Hylanders, who scored 28 points. The 1-3-1 defensive set the Tigers wen to was pulled from the back of the playbook, coach Techam admitted.
“To be honest, we probably practiced that for 30 seconds this year,” said Techam. “We hadn’t played it in two years, it was just kind of in the back of my head that we were having problems keeping them in front of us and we wanted to pressure them. They were in a pretty good rhythm; we just wanted to take them out of that rhythm.”
That Delano spent such little time learning that defense may have surprised Columbia Heights coach Willie Braziel.
“It just didn’t go our way,” said Braziel, who voiced his frustration over the second-half officiating several times during the press conference. “Delano did an outstanding job changing their defense to a 1-3-1. It’s an excellent trap defense. It stymied us for a while, and it didn’t allow us to get the ball in a good position to get decent shots. They did a great job changing to a 1-3-1.”
Wishart admitted his shot wasn’t sharp (5-for-15 from the field), but he scrounged up 19 points in his final game. He finished his career with 2,444 points.
Techam finished with 9 points, hitting two 3-pointers in the second half after going 0-for-5 from behind the arc in the first half.
O’Neill, Wishart and Techam were all named to the all-tournament team.
Freshman Trey Longstreet scored six points, and Max Otto added a late free throw for the Tigers.
Wendell Matthews led Columbia Heights with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Quentin Hardrict, Deundra Roberson and Jarvis Wright all scored 10 points for the Hylanders.
Delano’s state trip to the championship game came on the heels of wins over Mankato East and Austin. Columbia Heights got there with wins over St. Thomas Academy and DeLaSalle.
Earlier Saturday, Russel-Ryler-Ruthton defeated North Woods 59-55 to win the Class A title, and Minnehaha Academy topped Caledonia 73-60 to win the Class AA title.
The game didn’t mark the end to Delano’s epic run through the state tournament. The team was met by the Loretto and Maple Plain fire departments in Maple Plain and escorted to Delano, where a celebration at the TAC awaited.