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Bridgeport pushes regular-season win streak to 53 games with win over USA, but only postseason success will satisfy Bearcats

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 5, 2020, 11:35 pm

BRIDGEPORT — There was a lesson learned in Bridgeport’s shockingly early exit from the postseason a year ago, and you need to look no further than Tuesday’s game to see evidence of it.

With tired legs from a back-to-back against a third straight nine-win opponent, Bearcats coach Kevin Marshall Sr. merely turned to his deep bench, and started shoveling reserve defenders at Unionville-Sebewaing Area sharpshooter Landin Zimmer.

“We switched, because No. 5 (Zimmer) came out and hit a couple … and I said ‘Hey, I know our guys are a little tired from the battle we had last night, too.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go box-and-one, wear him out.’ We sent like six different guys at him,” Marshall said of the defensive switch after Zimmer’s three early 3-pointers. “That’s the luxury that we go 11 deep, and I can send six guys at any good player, as long as they’re ready to go. I think that tired him out a little bit, and he didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.”

With Zimmer quieted, the Bearcats (14-0) outscored the Patriots (9-2) by a 19-5 margin in the third quarter, and rolled to a comfortable, 58-37 win.

Jaylen Hodges led Bridgeport with 14 points, while Bryce McNair had 12. Zimmer and Conner Gettel had 13 each for USA, while Nash Morton had 11.

The victory was the Bearcats’ 53rd consecutive regular-season win, a streak that dates back to Dec. 5, 2017. 

The reason why it doesn’t get more hoopla and attention is because it’s just that: It’s only in the  regular season. 

After a 20-0 campaign a year ago, the Bearcats were bounced just three games into the postseason by regional host Alma, 64-56. And they were bounced in part, because Marshall didn’t quite trust his bench players enough to lean on them when things got rough in the regional semifinals. 

“I think a lot of it, as a head coach, I didn’t trust in a lot of the guys you’re seeing today. These guys took it, since Day One this year, and they were like ‘You’re going to play us. And we’re going to show you that we can play better defense, better offense.’ I take my hat off to them, because I think even my (2018) quarterfinal team, with Charles Garrett, and all them, this is probably one of the best overall teams, and complete teams,” Marshall admitted. 

“Even in that first year, in the quarters, I could only play seven kids. Last year, we had a big team, 15 players, but I really only played six guys a lot. And it hurt me last year. I learned a lesson. These guys worked hard in the offseason — a lot of them played football, to get tougher, and it shows out on the court. They’re just relentless and resilient.”

The Bearcats were essentially a one-man band with Charles Garrett in 2018, Marshall’s first year leading the basketball program, then were Markele Garrett and SirQuarius Ball and a handful of complementary players in 2019.

This year’s squad might be better equipped to make a run than those, simply because there is more depth, and less dependence on one or two players. 

“It (the depth) is big. But one of the big things I tell people, ‘If you think the game is intense with them, they go at each others’ heads (in practice).’ I have an open door. Nobody’s starters. You earn it. Every day, it’s different. Tonight, we had a couple of different people start. They’re constantly fighting for these positions,” Marshall said. “Tonight, I saw guys on the bench saying, ‘I want him (Zimmer). I want him.’ As a coach, you sit back and you hear that, so I was giving them their shot. We’ve been challenged a lot this year about our guards, and my guards, they take that real strong to heart when somebody says somebody else’s guards are better. So they want to prove and show them they’re the best.”

And the Bearcats want to prove, too, that last year’s early exit was just an anomaly. 

It was a loss that haunted Marshall in the offseason.

“I’ll be honest with you, it bothered me all year, until we played Alma the first game of the season. We had a chip on our shoulder since Nov. 13 or 14, when we started practice, and Alma was on the board. We had the opportunity to play Alma, and they went out there and showed. We didn’t even have two of these guys play in that game, because they were hurt, with ankle injuries,” the coach said. “Then they (the Panthers) came here about a week ago, and Alma came out with a strong fight, but we go to the bench, and once again — you think ‘This first five, man, they’re big, they’re strong.’ And then I bring in the second group that’s quick and fast. I would probably get frustrated playing them myself.”

It did help that the Bearcats got to get a bit of revenge against Alma in the season opener on Dec. 13, a 61-41 victory that counted in the Tri-Valley Conference standings, as well. Thanks to re-alignment of the league’s divisions, the Panthers are now in the same division with Bridgeport, and on the schedule twice. 

“The AD (Gabriel Rodriguez) told me during football season. He was like ‘You know you’ve got Alma on the schedule first.’ I was like, ‘Say what?’ This was football, and he was talking about basketball,” said Marshall, who has been Bridgeport’s football coach since 2016. “So I put it on the calendar. Every day, we wrote it down, and guys — we wanted that. We wanted that game. Instantly, when we played, it was ironic, the guys that lost last year, they all called that night. Two guys actually came down. And they were all like, ‘Hey coach, sorry we couldn’t do that.’”

Bridgeport’s 69-38 win over Alma on Jan. 31 pushed the Bearcats’ conference record to 8-0, two games up on second-place Frankenmuth (9-2, 6-2) and Freeland (9-4, 6-2). The Bearcats play the Eagles and Falcons in their next three games, which is part of the reason they’re not looking too far ahead to the postseason. 

“I say stay humble, don’t get big-headed, because we’ve got a lot of work to do. Even this 14-0 record — we don’t talk about records, we don’t talk about rankings, because I told them, it don’t mean anything. Nothing. We were undefeated the last three years in the regular season, and then we get to the playoffs, and things happen,” Marshall said. “We want more, and we’re going to fight for it until the end.”

That’s just one of the chips on the shoulders of the Bearcats. 

Aside from last year’s abrupt end to the perfect season, Bridgeport hasn’t had a ton of sustained success on the hardwood.

The Bearcats have made two trips to the semis — 1991 and 2009 — and six trips to the quarters, the most recent in Marshall’s first season, 2018. 

That’s part of the reason the program gets a bit overlooked in hoops-happy Saginaw, dead in the middle of the Saginaw Valley region. 

“Big time,” Marshall said. “Even here in Saginaw, I get tired of hearing ‘You guys don’t play Saginaw High.’ ‘You guys don’t play Arthur Hill.’ I’m good friends with those coaches, but my thing is, we’re a basketball program. We go out and we play tough competition over the break. This season, we play six Class A schools. So, they can say what they want. Everybody knows the TVC is a football conference — not by my choice — but we’ll play anybody, anywhere. We’re not going to run from it. But we do get tired of hearing that, and I think that carries us.”

In their own town, both Saginaw and Buena Vista have captured six state titles in 10 finals appearances, while Saginaw Arthur Hills has two titles in eight finals showings. Saginaw Nouvel has been in the finals six times, winning four titles, while one of its predecessors, Saginaw Saints Peter & Paul has one title in six trips to the finals. 

There’s only one way to cure that attention deficit: Hang a banner.

Knowing that, the regular-season win streak is a nice commodity to have, but it’s certainly not something the Bearcats are too overly attached to.

“I only talk about it with my wife. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think the kids even know about it,” said Marshall, who packed the non-conference schedule with teams like Lansing Waverly, Linden, Dearborn Divine Child, Ann Arbor Skyline and this week’s back-to-back tests from Flint Southwestern and USA. “It’s good, but it’s like, OK. It’s good to know, but we want more. I want to be standing East Lansing in March. That’s the goal.”