Skip to main content


John’s Journal: A Gopher-Islander Tradition At Williams Arena

From College Coaches To High School Players, Ties Are Strong

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2022 - 8:46 PM


There was a big, roaring crowd from Princeton at Williams Arena, most of them wearing blaze orange.


Gophers assistant coach Dave Thorson (left) and head coach Ben Johnson have strong ties to DeLaSalle.

To call Thursday afternoon’s action at the boys state basketball tournament a DeLaSalle reunion might be pushing it, but there was a clear Islanders air to the proceedings, especially during the second game in the Class 3A semifinals.

The teams on the court were DeLaSalle and Princeton. Watching from courtside were Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson and assistant Dave Thorson. Johnson played on two state championship teams at DeLaSalle coached by Thorson, who took 15 Islanders teams to state and won a state-record nine championships in 23 seasons at the Minneapolis school.

Johnson began his college playing career at Northwestern and transferred home to Minnesota for his final two seasons, serving as captain both years and graduating in 2005. He prepared congratulatory messages for all 32 head coaches in this year's state tournament.

Current DeLaSalle coach Travis Bledsoe, who played for Thorson in high school, said, “There’s just the overwhelming feeling of appreciation and humbleness that guys from DeLaSalle can make it to the very top of the basketball world. To be able to coach in the Big Ten, and Ben Johnson is only 40, he’s one of the younger coaches, and then Dave Thorson. It's been amazing.”

A member of the Gophers team this past season was Jamison Battle, another DeLaSalle figure.

“It's a Gopher-Islander tradition,” said Bledsoe after the Islanders held off Princeton 77-65.

DeLaSalle senior Kyle Johnson, who scored 15 points, said, “I've only heard great things about Ben Johnson, and Dave Thorson is the one I know most. To be honest, he was the person that sparked my interest to come here. I started watching games in third grade and I just liked the intensity and how they played. I would come down to DeLaSalle and watch. It was a gift every time I came down, so to see him courtside, it just kind of brought it all full circle for me.”

There is clearly a lot of pride on “the island,” as DeLaSalle’s campus on Nicolett Island on the Mississippi River just off downtown Minneapolis is known. Senior Amir Everett, who had 13 points against Princeton, said, “It's amazing to see those guys down there and just be able to continue this legacy of having ‘DeLaSalle’ across your chest and be able to show out in front of them and get the W.”

Pride Rides High In Princeton

After Princeton’s loss to DeLaSalle, Tigers coach Brett Cloutier talked about the preseason and how far the team has come. They gave DeLaSalle a game and the outcome was uncertain until the final minutes.

“We scrimmaged Duluth East, Buffalo and Brainerd on a Saturday and we went down to Elk River on a Tuesday and we were terrible,” he said. “We were like, ‘Are we even going to be .500?’ And to be 27-2, to play in a state semifinal, to be down nine at halftime and be able to bounce back and have that second half where we just played our absolute tails off? I couldn't be more proud as a coach. Just an absolute phenomenal effort from our guys.”

There was a big, roaring crowd from Princeton, most of them wearing blaze orange.

Four years ago Princeton came to state for the first time in 87 years and finished fourth. Their record of 27-2 matches the most wins in school history, and they can set a new record if they defeat Mankato East in the third-place game.

“It’s just such a community deal, our team, our guys,” Cloutier said. “As a head coach doing this for nine years, you don't think you're going to be amazed but it was more amazing than last time. They keep raising the bar with how impressed I've been with our guys. I couldn't be more proud.”

Totino-Grace Gets An A-Plus

When your shots aren’t only not falling but often being swatted away, it’s tough to win the basketball game. And it’s even tougher when the other team is shooting the lights out of the building.

That’s the position Mankato East was in during its 3A semifinal against Totino-Grace. The T-G Eagles won 77-39 to advance to their first state championship game on Saturday against DeLaSalle.

Here are the raw numbers: Totino-Grace shot 62.5 percent in the second half and 53.2 percent for the game, while Mankato East made only four of 26 shots in the first half (15.4 percent) and 11 of 55 for the game (20 percent).

Here’s the raw postgame message from East coach Joe Madson: “We had to play A-plus, that's number one, which we didn't do, and have them play B at best. We saw the best version of Totino. When they're dialed in, boy oh boy. I mean, you talk about rim protecting, shot blocking, scoring from the post, three-point shooting. They had everything. They answered the bell.”

The top-seeded Eagles were indeed on top of their game. Patrick Bath led them with 27 points, Tommy Humphries scored 16 and Ahjany Lee had 12 points and four of Totino-Grace’s seven blocked shots. The Eagles had 53 rebounds to East’s 26 and 18 assists to five for the Cougars.

“Defensively it was about as close to perfect as we wanted to be, I think,” said Totino-Grace coach Nick Carroll. “Offensively, we’ve always got stuff to work out.”

Top-Seeded Pirates Advance To 4A Final

Park Center, the No. 1 seed in the 4A tournament, defeated Eastview 54-39 in a surprisingly low-scoring, defensive affair. The Pirates will meet Wayzata in Saturday’s championship game. The Trojans defeated Cretin-Derham Hall 59-48.

“Our whole game plan, believe it or not, was to try to play fast and make the game go up and down,” said Park Center coach James Ware.

 The point totals for both teams were their lowest of the season. Park Center made 50 percent of its field goal attempts while the Lightning shot only 29.5 percent. The Pirates led 22-13 at halftime before the pace picked up a bit in the final 18 minutes.

--Craig Ehrlichman, one of the officials for the game between Mankato East and Totino-Grace, is very familiar with state championship basketball and Williams Arena. He was a member of the 1988 Rocori team that won the Class AA title.

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

Next Article

Class AAAA Boys Basketball State Semifinal Wayzata 59, Cretin-Derham Hall 48