Hopkins girls still top ticket in town, taking national stage via ESPN

Hopkins girls still top ticket in town, taking national stage via ESPN
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Thank you for checking out Basketball Across Minnesota, my weekly look at some of the state's top hoops stories, from preps to pros. — Marcus Fuller

If you're a diehard Twin Cities hoops head eager to be entertained on a cold winter night, the Timberwolves, the Gophers and a number of high school and small college teams might deliver, depending on your luck.

Nothing in this sports market is a sure thing, but watching the collection of talent on the Hopkins girls' basketball team feels close to perfection. Best show in town at any level.

The Royals (12-0), who are beating opponents by a 36-point average margin, are ranked No. 3 in the country and feature five girls among the top 40 players nationally, including seniors Maya Nnaji and Amaya Battle, who have signed to play for Arizona and the Gophers, respectively.

Reigning NCAA player of the year and Connecticut star Paige Bueckers, who is sidelined because of a knee injury, led Hopkins to a 30-0 record and the No. 1 national ranking in 2020, but some of her former teammates think this year's Hopkins squad might be better. No joke.

"It would probably be a good game," Battle said. "We're two totally different teams. This team I would say is more balanced. All of our starters score in double digits. All of our starters can do pretty much anything."

The 6-4 Nnaji, sister of Denver Nuggets big man Zeke Nnaji, prides herself on being one of the most versatile post players in the country.

Battle — sister of the U's leading scorer, Jamison Battle — has the court awareness and all-around game to be a potential backcourt standout for Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen.

Juniors Taylor Woodson and Stanford recruit Nunu Agara have blossomed into go-to players after three years on the varsity. And sophomore Liv McGill is the No. 11-ranked player in the 2024 class nationally.

No wonder ESPN has taken notice. The network, as part of its new high school girls series, lured several national powers to Minnesota this week to play each other, including No. 1-ranked Sidwell Friends (D.C.) at Hopkins on ESPNU at 4 p.m. Friday.

"We've been waiting to do something like this for years," Nnaji said. "When Paige was here, we've always been ranked nationally, but never able to go out and play these [big-time] teams."

As dominant as the Royals have been with seven state crowns and a record of 591-68 in the past 23 seasons, Minnesota's Division I girls' hoops factory hasn't won the Class 4A title since beating Stillwater in 2019.

Two years ago, the state tournament was canceled early in the pandemic. And the Royals saw their state-record-tying 78-game win streak snapped by Chaska, 67-62, in the state semifinals last season.

There's extra motivation to put another state championship banner up at Hopkins this year, not just because of the stinging Chaska defeat, but also because Bueckers couldn't play for the title her senior year after the shutdown.

"We have a really great relationship with Paige; she's like our big sister," Nnaji said. "She's always going to be there for us, always mentoring us and always talking to the team. We talk to her all the time. Whenever she gets a chance, she'll even come and visit us."

In August, Bueckers surprised the team, showing up to watch their game at the Pacesetter Sweet 16 in St. Joseph, Minn. She drove two hours to spend the weekend with them.

They stayed up late talking about a dream scenario this spring: the Royals winning at state before Bueckers returned home with UConn in the NCAA Women's Final Four in Minneapolis. It will be tougher now with Bueckers hurt, but her old teammates are supporting her.

"When she lost [in the Final Four] last year and we lost at state, we kind of had each other's back," Nnaji said. "We talked about how we were going to come back the following year and finish business this time."

Fuller's Five

Five Minnesotans who stood out this week:

Michael Jones, Davidson

The 6-5 junior guard from Woodbury scored 26 points against Richmond, including the game-winning three-pointer for the Wildcats, who have the nation's longest win streak at 14.

Mallory Heyer, Chaska

The Gophers recruit scored 30 points last Thursday in a 90-63 victory over St. Louis Park, but the highlight was a step-back three-pointer in the first half to give the 6-2 forward 2,000 career points.

Jackson Loge, Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta

Loge, a 6-9 Augustana recruit, had 25 points on 4-for-9 shooting from three-point range in a 64-54 victory against Enderlin (N.D.) and 6-10 Colorado recruit Joe Hurlburt.

Max Shikenjanski, Stillwater

The Stillwater junior guard became the state's leading scorer (30.3 ppg) after his fourth 40-point game this season Tuesday with 41 points, including a game-winning three to beat Roseville 74-71.

Monika Czinano, Iowa

The 6-3 senior from Watertown, Minn., scored 31 points in Iowa's 93-83 comeback win after being down 16 points against Nebraska on Sunday. The Hawkeyes played at Minnesota on Thursday.

Statistically speaking

1 Augsburg men and women beat their respective rivals, St. John's and St. Benedict, each by a point over the weekend (67-66 and 64-63). They've started a combined 19-0 in MIAC play.

7 Totino-Grace junior guard Taison Chatman's three-point total while scoring 29 points in a 101-84 victory against Cretin-Derham Hall and Michigan State recruit Tre Holloman.

12 Itasca Community College guard Jack Tong's three-point barrage in an 87-76 victory over Mesabi Range on 17 attempts to score 44 points last Saturday.

69 Point total for Farmington's starting five in the 74-73 upset of No. 2 Shakopee on Monday.

1,000 Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore sensation Olivia Olson already reached this scoring milestone in her career in a win last week.

Games to watch

East Ridge boys at Woodbury, Friday, 7 p.m.

The Raptors, ranked No. 5 in Class 4A, have won five consecutive games entering the game against their Suburban East rival, including behind Kendall Blue's 28 points Tuesday vs. Park of Cottage Grove.

Sidwell Friends High (D.C.) at Hopkins, Friday, 4 p.m.

The No. 1-ranked team in the country battles the No. 2 Royals in ESPN's Girls Basketball Invitational at Hopkins, which also includes a 6 p.m. matchup between Grandview (Colo.) and No. 2 Desoto (Texas).

Basketball Across Minnesota will be published weekly on startribune.com. Don't be a stranger on Twitter after reading, as chatting about these stories make them even more fun to share. Thanks, Marcus (@Marcus_R_Fuller on Twitter)

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