Division 1: High-scoring Grand Blanc wins championship with strong defensive effort
East Lansing — Grand Blanc battled to a 45-36 victory over Ann Arbor Huron on Saturday afternoon in the Division 1 title game at Breslin Center to earn the right to lift the championship trophy.
Grand Blanc truly grinded it out in the physical, defensive battle, outrebounding Huron by a 12-7 margin during the pivotal fourth quarter after being outrebounded 32-21 through the first three quarters.
Huron (20-1) — which entered the game unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in The News Super 20 poll — missed seven of its final eight shots and four free throws after owning a 34-32 lead with just over five minutes remaining.
No. 10 Grand Blanc (15-2) shot 25% from the field (10-of-40) and 25% from deep range (4-of-16) before Josh Rechsteiner knocked down a 3-pointer for a 35-34 cushion with 4:30 left.
Grand Blanc went on to make 8-of-12 free throws the rest of the way with sophomore guard Amont’e Allen-Johnson making a transition basket, then two free throws during a 9-2 run over the final 2:52.
“Man, what a game, we have great leaders who just kind of reminded everybody that we have to stay together to fight through this, we just have to grind this one out and I thought they did a really good job of hanging in there and coming together and getting it done,” said Grand Blanc coach Mike Thomas, who guided Kalamazoo Central to consecutive Class A championships in 2010 and 2011 with the 2010 title game win coming against Ann Arbor Huron and its coach Waleed Samaha.
“I knew Coach (Samaha) spent a lot of time with John Beilein and all of that Beilein action and we had to make sure that we were locked in, that was the No. 1 thing because when you make a mistake, you’re giving up layups and I thought our guys did a really good job of not really giving up layups and making mistakes defensively, but two, we wanted to focus on rebounding.
“We noticed at the half that they had 11 offensive rebounds and scored 10 points off of it, and that’s not Grand Blanc defense. We want to play really good defense, limit guys to one shot and we didn’t do a really good job during that first half, but we made the correction. I thought No. 24 (6-foot-7 Kingsley Perkins) and No. 23 (6-2, 215-pound Brandon Rawls) were kind of pushing us around and so we had to challenge these two (6-6 junior Ty Rodgers, 6-3 sophomore Timonte Boyd) to not get pushed around and I think they responded.”
Sophomore point guard RJ Taylor scored 15 points, making 3-of-7 3-pointers for Grand Blanc, which received 12 points and seven rebounds from Boyd and nine points and seven rebounds from Rodgers, the nephew of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson.
Devin Womack scored 18 points, making 8-of-17 shots for Huron, but the rest of his teammates connected on just 7-of-30 shots. Perkins had six points and 14 rebounds, but failed to make a free throw in seven chances.
“Obviously Coach Thomas and I go way back, met in this game before and hopefully we’ll get back again, maybe it won’t be 10 years from now, hopefully sooner,” Samaha said. “I’m really happy for them. I’m really proud of our kids. We’re disappointed obviously in the outcome, but we know that we gave it everything we had out there tonight. Great effort all the way through.
“We struggled a little bit with execution at times, struggled a little bit staying out of foul trouble and I think that threw us off a little bit most of the game. That team is averaging almost 80 points a game and we held them to (45). This team plays elite defense.”
It looked like Huron had opportunities to take control during several stretches, but either missed free throws (made just 3-of-13) or had turnovers (14) to prevent it from happening.
The game was close throughout, even at 12-12 after one quarter and 24-24 at halftime with Huron carrying a 30-29 lead into the final quarter.
Womack gave Huron a 26-24 lead early in the third quarter, but Huron then missed four straight free throws, and Rawls picked up fouls No. 2, 3 and 4 within a two-minute stretch by the midway point of the third quarter.
Rawls had played tough defense against Rodgers up to that point, limiting him to five points on 1-of-4 shooting.
In a game in which points were so hard to come by Rechsteiner’s 3-pointer might have been the biggest shot.
“We just gave him a lot of praise because he was struggling for the last couple of games throughout the tournament and we just kept telling him ‘be ready, be ready, be ready,’ and that was huge,” Thomas said. “I think that’s a prime example of just being ready when your number is called and just continue to have confidence even through adversity.”
Thomas knew Grand Blanc was in for a battle going up against Huron’s defense.
“I take my hat off to Waleed over there at Ann Arbor Huron, I thought he had a really good game plan defensively, he slowed us down,” Thomas said. “We’re used to scoring close to 80 points a game. I think our guys are prepared for any style of play.
“We spend 45 minutes on defense every day. They hate it, but hey, this is what happens when you spend that much time on it. We spend 45 minutes on defense every day just for games like this because our shots aren’t going to fall all the time. We have to be able to rely on our defense to stay in games and I thought it happened for us today.”
Still, Huron’s free throw shooting will haunt Samaha, including four straight during a two-minute stretch late in the game which would have given Huron the lead or made it a one-possession game.
“That’s tough, as a team on the season we shot around 66%, but some of our better free throw shooters didn’t get to the line so that’s part of it,” Samaha said. “It wasn’t the totality of free throws that we missed, but when they happened.
“We had a three-point lead, a four-point lead at one point and could have extended the lead. We had some empty possessions offensively and some of those were 0-for-2 at the free-throw line or 1-for-2 at the free-throw line so those hurt. I just thought that our kids competed really hard. It would have just been nice to see them all out there for 32 minutes.
“I was just telling them in the locker room, these guys have only lost two games in almost 800 days if you go back to the last game they lost their sophomore year. They’re winners. This is a group of winners. They are great students. They are great people. They are great athletes and they’ve done a lot of winning at Huron and it would have been nice to be able to see them go off the right way. I think we would have won it last year (Huron was 21-1 when the pandemic ended the season).”
Samaha should be proud of his program with Huron going 41-2 the last two years, but his starting five is now graduating while Grand Blanc returns as the team to beat next year with Taylor, Rodgers and Boyd all ack, primed for another run.