Boys state basketball: Eagan stuns Park Center in Class 4A quarterfinals

21 March 2024

Owen Bockenstedt and Liam Madigan were walking around Target Center ahead of their Class 4A quarterfinal Wednesday when they heard someone ask, “What is Eagan doing here?”

After Eagan pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent Class 4A quarterfinal history, that is a question no longer. The unseeded Wildcats’ 73-70 victory over second-seeded Park Center proved Eagan is right where it is supposed to be, going toe to toe with some of the state’s top programs.

Eagan (18-12) will meet third-seeded Minnetonka in the Class 4A semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena. Minnetonka topped Coon Rapids 83-36 in their quarerfinal.

“We belong here,” Bockenstedt said. “That’s what we’ve been saying. And everyone just came out and we really handled it like we can, and I think confidence is the biggest part of that.”

Alex Schroepfer led Eagan with 19 points, while Charlie Birk made five 3-pointers and scored 15 points as the Wildcats erased a 13-point first-half deficit to stun the Pirates and the rest of the state, but maybe not themselves.

Eagan coach Kevin McKenzie noted the top three seeds in Class 4A — Wayzata, Park Center and Minnetonka — were all “beasts.”

“I didn’t have a preference. We were going to be in trouble and it was going to be a battle no matter who it was against,” he said.

But the Wildcats took solace in Park Center’s section results: tight wins over Mounds View and Maple Grove, teams Eagan thinks it compares to in size and skill.

“So I was like, ‘Oh, we could do those things,’ ” McKenzie said. “So I knew we could win. But I knew it would be a tall task, quite honestly.”

And the task only got taller with the early deficit. But trailing 36-26 at halftime, McKenzie pointed out the team’s missed assignments and four missed free throws and noted Eagan could’ve easily been within a score. His players bought into the theory and sprang out of the gates to open the second.

Park Center’s lead was trimmed to three just minutes into the second stanza.

Eagan limited Park Center’s transition opportunities and forced the game into more of a half-court setting where it felt it might have an advantage. The Wildcats felt they could be a little more disciplined defensively and on the glass.

“We tried to take all of those strengths away and really just play our game on the offensive side, as well, running offense and just being aggressive,” Madigan said.

The Wildcats tied the game with seven minutes to play and took the lead for good on a Bockenstedt bucket with 5 minutes, 24 seconds to play.

Everything Eagan did in the second half was disciplined. Schroepfer put on a show at the free-throw line, going 12 for 15 over the final 18 minutes. Every time Eagan needed a good shot, it found one. Defensively, it packed the paint as best it could to survive a late-charging Cash Chavis onslaught. The Washington commit scored 26 of Park Center’s 34 second-half points. He marched into the paint on seemingly every single possession down the stretch. But Eagan turned him away enough times to hold its advantage, even in the face of immense pressure. Park Center (25-4) had the ball in the closing seconds down three with a chance to tie the game. But Eagan’s defense stood up, forcing a turnover before the Pirates could get a shot attempt.

“Especially once Park Center realizes it’s kind of (in) jeopardy, Cash Chavis, he’s amazing, but he really just tries to take over and I think we knew that coming into this,” Bockenstedt said. “So once they felt that pressure, we kind of knew, ‘Hey, it’s going to him.’”

Park Center is stacked with athletes who are capable of pressuring the ball. That’s been an Achilles’ heel for the Wildcats at points this season. They don’t have a point guard. They rely on forwards to do a lot of ball handling. But Eagan committed just 10 turnovers Wednesday.

“That’s what they handled best that I’ve seen all year,” McKenzie said.

No one expected Eagan to be in the position it is now, just two games away from a state title. That’s not only because prior to this week, the Wildcats hadn’t been to state since 2005, but because Eagan was just 14-12 at the end of the regular season. It finished sixth in the South Suburban Conference.

And yet, just four games later, they’re rewriting the narrative around the Wildcats basketball program.

“I think our win here really can inspire. … I think that’s just an inspiration to the little kids that Eagan is now here,” Madigan said. “We’ve been working hard in the weight room and the gym all summer for many, many years, and we can instill that confidence in the younger generation of Eagan basketball that Eagan is a team that will be able to get to state for many, many years to come.”

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