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John's Journal: No Foolin’ Around … Cherry Tigers Mean Business

Winning Title Is The Main Mission During Third Consecutive Year At State

Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 5:21 PM




Opening tip between Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and Cherry at Target Center.


If you’re looking for the boys basketball team from Cherry High School this weekend in the Twin Cities, don’t go to the Mall of America or any other typical tourist attraction. They’re in town but they’re not fooling around.

The top-seeded Tigers are playing in the state tournament for the third year in a row and their focus is on winning three games and finally taking a championship trophy with them when they return to the Iron Range. Step 1 came Thursday when they defeated defending state champ Russell-Tyler-Ruthton 78-46 in the Class A quarterfinals at Target Center.

Cherry (29-2) will face fifth-seeded Nevis (24-7) in the semifinals at noon Friday at Williams Arena.

“This feels different than the past two years,” Cherry coach Jordan Christianson said. “The guys even said this is a business trip.”

In past years the team has used down time to explore the mall, visit restaurants and even experience an escape room. Not this year.  

“The first time we were pretty happy to be here,” Christianson said. “I feel like the celebration after the section championship the first time was pretty wild. Everyone was pretty happy we got down here and we were excited to be down here. And of course you come down here wanting to win. But now we're down here for one thing and only one thing.”

Thursday’s win was decisive even though the Tigers’ scoring total was relatively low. They had scored at least 94 points in their previous nine games, with a high of 114.

Isaac Asuma, the team’s star senior who will continue his basketball career at the University of Minnesota, is always in the spotlight so it was no surprise to see Gophers coach Ben Johnson and assistant Dave Thorson sitting in the first row at Target Center during Cherry’s game. They also were in Hibbing on Friday night when the Tigers defeated Mountain Iron-Buhl 99-55 in the Section 7 championship game.

Isaac had his usual strong game Thursday, with 20 points and 13 rebounds. The only senior starter on the team, you know how much he wants to raise that first-place trophy.

“I think it's a little bit more motivation,” he said. “It’s my last go-around, my last time to win it. It was a great experience to be down here the last two years. We want to get it done.”

Ninth-grader Isaiah Asuma led the Cherry scoresheet with 26 points on 11-for-13 shooting.

“I was just running the floor,” Isaiah said. “I know my team's going to find me and we're going to play together. We're family. We're always with each other. We're brothers and we feel like we always know where each other is going to be. We’ve got that team chemistry.”

The Tigers were talking shortly before the second semifinal between Nevis and Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey. Their plans after the interview session were pretty simple.

“We're going to watch this game,” Christianson said, “head back to the hotel and get in the film room and get ready for tomorrow.”

Newcomer vs. (Almost) Newcomer

The closest thing to an all-newcomer state tournament game this week took place when West Central Area and Heritage Christian met in the Class A quarterfinals. It was WCA’s first time at state and Heritage’s second, the other coming in 2018.

West Central Area encompasses a large swath or territory in, well, the west-central area of the state. The school is in Barrett and other former schools in the district include Elbow Lake, Hoffman and Kensington.

The Knights, who came to state on a 17-game winning streak, won 64-53 and played very well in what can be tough circumstances; bright lights, NBA court, state tourney pressure.

“We talk all the time about controlling things we can control,” said Knights coach Kraig Hunter. “The venue is not going to phase us. Some of these guys have been on the varsity for three or four years, so we've been in a lot of games.”

West Central senior Camden Anderson, who scored a game-high 23 points, said, “Obviously it's every kid's dream to play on an NBA court. I was more excited than nervous, but it was a fun time to be out there with my best friends.”

‘It's a big thing for a lot of us’

Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey played at state for the first time in 11 years, so everything was new for those players, too. After the Wolverines lost to Nevis 78-54 Thursday, 31-year coach Shawn Naas talked about preparing the team for the experience.

“You tell them it’s still a game, it's just a game, and all you’ve got to do is play the game,” he said. “But they’re 17-, 18-year-old kids and it's a big thing; heck, it's a big thing for a lot of us. You walk in here and this is a massive place. We were here last night, we walked in and walked to the locker room area and tried to do the best we could.”

Nevis is making its fourth consecutive state appearance, and Thursday’s win ended an 0-for-3 streak in the quarterfinals.

Nevis coach Scott Kramer said, “It's kind of funny because we've got the logistics of it down, but you get kind of superstitious in the sports business. We kind of think we might have to change something because we haven't done well in the first round for whatever reason. We’ve been in games but just haven’t been able to close it out, where today that was huge.”

Nevis played at Cherry on Feb. 9, with the home team winning 73-57.

“We played them earlier in the year and we actually led at halftime, but they are explosive,” Kramer said. “It starts with Isaac, who’s awesome and he creates for everyone else. So it's a little bit of a game of Russian roulette, with what are you going to try to take away and what are you going to give? You hope you pick right.”

Tournament Tidbits

--Interesting mathematical fact regarding the coaches in Thursday’s second Class A state quarterfinal game: Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey's Shawn Naas (31 years) and Nevis' Scott Kramer (27 years) each came in with 507 career wins. After Nevis’ victory, Kramer’s record is 508-228 and Naas is at 507-292. They have combined for 1,535 total games as head coaches.

--Farmington, playing at state for the first time in 87 years and featured in John’s Journal this week, made history by defeating Rogers 98-69 Thursday in the 4A consolation bracket. That is the first state tournament win in school history.

--MSHSL senior content creator 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] 

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Boys Basketball State Tournament 2024: Class AAA semifinals