Eden Prairie’s defense clung to Hopkins’ star forward Zeke Nnaji like vines Friday, Feb. 8, at Hopkins Lindbergh Center.
Even so, the 6-foot-11 forward, who has a scholarship to play for the University of Arizona next season, scored 26 points in a 78-71 Hopkins win.
As good as he was, there was a time in the second half when Nnaji needed help, and it came from a reliable source, 6-foot senior guard Jalen Dearring.
With the Royals trailing 64-58, Dearring suddenly went on a personal 9-0 run that put Hopkins in the lead 67-64. Despite a great night from junior guard Drake Dobbs, the Eagles were never able to recover after Dearring’s heroics.
“I choose my spots to score,” Dearring said after the game. Usually, Dearring tries to set up Nnaji and the Royals’ two outside shooting threats, junior guard Kerwin Walton and senior guard Andy Stafford, but he proved Friday night that he’s capable of taking over the game.
During his 9-0 spurt, Dearring began with two free throws and then made a left-hand layup. With his swagger in play, he hit a long three-pointer to put Hopkins ahead 65-64. Finally, he made two more free throws.
Dearring finished the game with 16 points. Along with Nnaji’s 26 points, the Royals also had 14 from Walton and 10 from 6-7 senior forward Dane Zimmer.
Dobbs made some incredible shots, ranging from NBA three-pointers to twisting layups and runners in the lane, on his way to a 36-point night.
“All you can do against a player like Dobbs is try to limit him as much as possible,” Dearring said.
Late in the second half, Stafford guarded Dobbs and took away his three-point chances, but that was after most of the damage had been done.
“In the first half, especially, we didn’t have a lot of movement on offense,” Hopkins head coach Kenny Novak Jr. noted. “We began setting some ball screens for Dearring in the second half. Along with the nine points Jalen scored, we had some critical defensive stops. I thought Eden Prairie did a good job on Zeke with their double and triple teams.”
Dearring fouled out with 1:53 remaining in the second half, leaving the Royals without their primary ball handler, but as it turned out, the other players filled the void.
“We took care of the ball,” Novak said.
Hopkins was able to close the game out at the foul line, making seven of eight down the stretch. Rayquan Valentin made four-of-four, Stafford was two for two-for-two and, finally, Zimmer sank one-of-two.
The Royals will play Eden Prairie at least one more time this year, in the Lake Conference finale at 7 p.m. Friday, March 1, at Eden Prairie. The teams could meet a third time if both qualify for the State Class 4A Tournament.
“Eden Prairie is a tough team,” Novak assured. “Tonight they didn’t have Austin Andrews, who is out with an ankle injury.”
Andrews could have made a difference for the Eagles. The 6-5 junior forward, has started every game since his freshman year.
Next for the Royals is a game against Lake rival Minnetonka. The tip-off will be at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the Lindbergh Center. The Royals enter this week’s action 19-3 overall and 3-1 in Lake Conference games.
Lake Boys Standings
Hopkins 3-1, Wayzata 3-1, Edina 2-2, Eden Prairie 2-2, Minnetonka 0-4.