by Matthew Davis
Cards may be stacked against them, but the Columbia Heights Hylanders could return to the state boys basketball tournament for the first time since 2011.
It will only take beating a 24-3 top-seeded Mahtomedi team on Thursday night at 7 p.m. without the Hylanders’ leading scorer Deaundra Roberson, who averages 17.7 points per game, out with a hip flexor. The winner will get the Class 3A Section 4 title and a trip to the Target Center for the state tournament.
“My suspicion is he will not play Thursday,” Hylanders coach Willie Braziel said.
Columbia Heights coach Willie Braziel has the program back in a section final for the first time since that 2010-2011 season. In his first year back the at the Hylanders helm this season, he also had the team reach 20 wins for the first time since that 25-7 campaign in 2010-2011 when they reached the state title game.
Most of Columbia Heights’ current players had yet to finish middle school or elementary school the last time the Hylanders went this far. Braziel had to give the players of picture of what they’ll face in a likely packed St. Paul Washington gym on Thursday night against Mahtomedi.
“We have the capabilities,” Braziel said. “It’s that varsity experience, and none of these young men have been in a championship game, or I would say a championship environment.”
Columbia Heights’ opponent comes hungry as well. The Zephyrs had a strong team last season at 19-7 before getting stunned by Hill-Murray in the section tournament. This season’s Zephyrs almost saw it all slip away against Totino-Grace in the semifinals on Saturday, March 11 before a 25-7 run in the second half secured a double-digit comeback and a 69-65 victory. Parker Fox exploded for 29 of his 37 points for the Zephyrs in that half.
“They showed a lot of character the other night being down almost 20 against Totino with a really good basketball team as well,” Braziel said.
Columbia Heights has some recent history with the Zephyrs, having met in the regular season. The Hylanders came out on top 55-53 on Jan. 5 with a buzzer-beating shot.
Columbia Heights comes into the game looking strong despite the absence of Roberson, who injured his hip against St. Paul Como Park in the section quarterfinals on Wednesday, March 8.
“That’s a big hole in the lineup, as deep as it is,” Braziel said.
The Hylanders finished off the Cougars 80-70 and went on to beat St. Paul Johnson 88-76 on Saturday, March 11. Quentin Hardrict stepped up offensively with 31 points against Johnson and 14 points against Como Park.
Wendell Matthews scored 18 points for the Hylanders against Johnson as ten Hylanders finished in double figures. Matthews led the scoring against Como Park with 21 points. Kadeem Thomas added 17 points against Como Park, and Jarvis Wright posted 14 points.
Columbia Heights will need more balanced scoring like that Thursday night to find an edge against Mahtomedi. The Zephyrs allow 56.8 points per game and score 74.4 points per night.
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