Sixteen teams entered the Breslin Center doors this weekend with dreams of winning a State Championship. Throughout the first day and a half, six teams had already punched their ticket to Championship Saturday, with two spots remaining to be decided Friday night. The Rockets soared and the Orioles flew on the wings of Josh Laman, and these two will meet in Saturday’s final.
In the first game of the evening, the New Haven Rockets faced off against the Tigers of Benton Harbor. Though this game was heralded as a showcase for two of the state’s best young players (New Haven sophomore Romeo Weems and Benton Harbor freshman Carlos Johnson), it was the performance of senior guard Eric Williams Jr. that stood out for the Rockets in their impressive 78-49 defeat of Benton Harbor.
The first half was dominated by the Rockets, as Eric Williams Jr. outscored Benton Harbor 23-19, and they entered the locker room up 43-19. New Haven appeared to be physically superior to Benton Harbor, which was surprising given their similarities in size. On the defensive end, the Rockets forced Benton Harbor into some tough shots, and as a result they went into the break shooting 26% from the field.
Down by twenty-four, the Tigers came out of the locker room locked in, and they went on an 8-0 run, perhaps showing a slight glimmer of hope. Romeo Weems, the AP Class B Player of the Year, stopped all of their momentum as he drove the lane and threw down a thunderous dunk. This sparked a New Haven run of 20-4 to end the third quarter, and any chance that the Tigers had in this contest.
New Haven went on to win this contest by a final score of 78-49, their twenty-third win by over twenty points this season, including their sixth in seven playoff contests. As a result, they will be playing on Championship Saturday for the first time in their school’s history.
The final contest of the night pitted a Ludington Orioles team that surprised many by reaching this point in the state tournament against the River Rouge Panthers, a program with fourteen championships in their decorated history.
Early on in this one, both teams were a bit jittery, as no player on either team has ever played an MHSAA contest in front of such a crowd. The Orioles finally settled down however, and they maintained a 17-6 lead, thanks to eight quick points from Calvin Hackert. After a timeout, River Rouge cranked up the defense, extending their press into the full court. As a result, they forced a handful of turnovers which 12-2 run to end the half, leaving the halftime score to be 19-18 in favor of Ludington.
The second half was back and forth as neither team could break ahead by more than two possessions. Though the offense picked up, the defenses were still solid, as in most of the possessions they still had to kill a lot of clock in order to find good looks. These two teams got after it, in a truly sloppy contest, and the players were constantly diving on the floor trying to collect loose balls.
With 1:48 left in this contest, River Rouge’s Darian Owens-White hit a pair of free throws that came by the means of Calvin Hackert’s fourth four, and the Panthers led 43-34. A large contingency of fans began to file out of the Breslin Center, as it appeared this contest was all but over. Out of the timeout, the Orioles’ Calvin Hackert used all of the rim to connect from deep, cutting the lead to six.
After a pair of defensive stops, Ludington had the ball down by four with fifty eight seconds remaining. A handful of passes around the perimeter put the ball in the hands of Hackert, and he pulled up and buried a three-point shot from the center court logo to cut the lead to one. Hackert split a pair of free throws with twenty seconds left, and they successfully completed the comeback to force overtime.
In the fifth frame, River Rouge opted to slow the game down and stall the clock. In the first two and a half minutes of overtime, the Panthers had two possessions, while Ludington only had one, and they held a 49-44 lead. But the comeback Orioles had one more trick up their sleeve, and they clawed back. Josiah Bandstra’s layup with thirty-two seconds left cut the lead to two, and then the stifling defense of Ludington forced River Rouge into a turnover. With twenty-nine seconds left to play, the Orioles had the ball and were down by two. With their top two players fouled out of the contest, it was unclear which player was going to serve as the go-to scorer for Ludington. After two misses and a pair of rebounds, the ball got kicked out to Josh Laman out on the wing, and at the buzzer he buried the triple to lift Ludington over River Rouge 51-50.
On Saturday’s night cap, the Class B State Championship will take place as the Ludington Orioles will take on the New Haven Rockets. This game will be a battle of two different styles, as the Rockets like to run, and Ludington played tonight at a slow pace. While New Haven is favored in this contest, don’t sleep on the Comeback Kids at Ludington to sneak up and win the Championship.