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D2 FINALS: Hudsonville Unity Christian wins first boys hoops title, third ring of school year, denying River Rouge a 15th title banner

By: Matthew B. Mowery, March 17, 2019, 12:03 am

EAST LANSING —  Some championship teams will tell you how they had it all planned out, all lined up, all anticipated.

And others will be honest that it sort of came by surprise.

Hudsonville Unity Christian falls into the latter camp, after they knocked off River Rouge, 58-55, in Saturday’s Division 2 championship game at Michigan State’s Breslin Center to capture the program’s first boys basketball title.

It pairs up with the two titles the Crusaders won in the fall season, in boys soccer and football.

And they were not foregone conclusions.

“No. When we started football, it was like ‘Let’s get a winning record.’ We started basketball, and it was like ‘Let’s win districts again, and win regionals,’” Noah Wiswary said. “I’m like ‘OK, let’s do this, then.’”

The Crusaders (26-2) finished the season on a 22-game win streak, dating back to a Dec. 21 loss to Grand Rapids South Christian. The first month of the season was a bit messy, considering the overlap with football.

“It (the South Christian loss) was early, our sixth game of the year, and we’d gotten a really late start because of the football championship. We actually got our first game changed and moved back, because we were supposed to play Tuesday, and Monday was the first day I had the players. So we hadn’t even made cuts. We still had 16, 17 guys on the team,” Unity Christian coach Scott Soodsma said. “They were really good to us and said, ‘Hey, we’ll move it back, since the situation happened.’ These guys hadn’t even practiced for three weeks before the first game.”

The run to the finals was not unprecedented, though: Unity Christian had finished as runner-up twice before, in 1973, and in 1963, when they faced Saturday’s same opponent, River Rouge. That season marked the Panthers’ sixth championship, the halfway point of the run of 12 titles in 18 seasons under legendary coach Lofton Greene. Interspersed in there were five runner-up finishes under Greene — something you’d never know if you went in the gymnasium.

Just getting back to the title game wasn’t enough for the Panthers (23-2).

“Yeah, that’s not good enough. We talked all week, talked all year — River Rouge basketball is based on state championships. The banners in our gymnasium, there are 14 state championship banners. Coach Greene has a number of runner-up, second-place (finishes). He didn’t place those banners in the gymnasium,” River Rouge coach Lamonta Stone said. “So I’m not going to. That’s my mentor, the guy I played for — everything I know about basketball is based on coach Greene. If he’s not satisfied with runner-ups, neither can I be.”

Stone wasn’t satisfied with his team’s performance a night after winning an instant classic in overtime against Harper Woods Chandler Park. Stone noted the Rouge coaching staff had used a back-to-back in mid-January to simulate the 24-hour turnaround between the semifinals and finals, and refused to use fatigue as an excuse.

“It was (draining), but we’re not going to make excuses. Yesterday was the state championship. We came here to win a state championship. We talked about this at midseason. We had a game against Ecorse on a Friday, and then turned around and played Flint Beecher on a Saturday,” Stone said. “We talked about this specific weekend, preparing that weekend, for this weekend. We talked about Ecorse being the semifinal game, winning that game and turning around and playing Flint Beecher … and we said ‘This is for a state championship.’ We talked about the preparation we put in those two days, and the days prior to those two days, being the same preparation that we were going to put in for this weekend. We were prepared. I could do that, but I’m not going to do that. We lost to a very good team. … Tonight, they were the better team.”

The two teams dominated in different areas. The Panthers forced 23 Unity Christian turnovers and had 15 steals — particularly in the second half, when they fell behind by as much as 13 points, and needed to ratchet up the full-court pressure.

“We didn’t really take care of he ball good, but we were up by so much that if we just kept keeping the clock going, you could get it down to just a little bit of time (remaining), and we could get the win,” Wiswary said, “and that’s what we did.”

Soodsma admitted he’d have scoffed at the idea of winning with that many turnovers, had you told him, beforehand, but admitted that the advantage on the boards (31-16) balanced it out, somewhat.

“We do not turn the ball over, so give River Rouge a lot of credit. We just don’t. We’re probably averaging in that 10.5-12 area all year long. Ball security is something we preach. But with the intensity of that game, and the way they were coming at us, I give them a lot of credit, we did make a few mistakes that we usually don’t do,” Soodsma said. “I was telling somebody the other night, we played Benton Harbor, and we out rebounded them by 19, and then we went to South Christian in the quarters, and out-rebounded them by 21. That’s really part of our program to really press the boards.”

Wiswary scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the third quarter, when the Crusaders outscored River Rouge, 19-8, to lead 47-36 headed into the final period.

“We talked about wanting to go toe-to-toe with them right away, and I was really excited with the way we pushed the ball up the floor,” Soodsma said. “I told Noah, ‘You gotta keep going, you gotta keep pushing it. Don’t get tentative.’ And I thought that was the difference. We beat them down the floor a few times, and got some good looks.”

The Crusaders shot 54 percent for the game, but 69 percent in the second half — despite only taking four shots in a fourth quarter, where they were scrambling to hold onto the ball, and run down the clock.

“The pressure was good, but I thought we gambled a little too much. Our defense is not based on gambling. It’s pressure, denying the wings, and keeping everything in front of us. And I thought on a number of occasions, we did too much gambling and reaching, and that led to three-on-four advantages for them, or four-on-five. They’re too good of an offensive team to give them those advantages,” Stone said, noting that the offensive drought in the third was directly tied to the defense. “I thought it was more our defense. Our defense creates our offense. And, defensively, we were bad. We were bad the whole game.  They were getting too many easy looks. They were getting in the lane. That’s just not the way we have been playing defensive basketball to this point.”

The Panthers managed to whittle that double-digit deficit down to five after a Dan Few three-point opportunity with 4:02 left, but didn’t score again for two more minutes, as the Crusaders pumped the lead back up to nine.

River Rouge used a layup by Kamal Hadden and four straight free throws by Nigel Colvin and Donavan Freeman to cut it down to three, 56-53, with 29 seconds left.

Ryan Takens hit two free throws with 26 seconds left, pushing the lead back to five, 58-53, but Micah Parrish was fouled in the attempt of shooting a 3-pointer, and hit two of three free throws with 18 seconds left to make it a three-point margin again.

The Crusaders turned it over again, and the Panthers got two cracks at potential game-tying 3s — including by Friday’s semifinal buzzer-beating hero Colvin — but missed.

“Yeah, I thought I had a chance, but after I let it go, obviously I saw the results,” Colvin said.

The 3-point attempt was just Colvin’s second shot of the second half, after he went 4-for-6 from the floor and 3-for-4 from 3-point range, scoring 11 points in the first half.

“I think they flat-out face-guarded him, denied him. We don’t really run things to get Nigel the ball. … We’re a drive-and-kick team, get in the lane, make teams help and Nigel’s usually the beneficiary of teams helping because we’re in the lane,” Stone said. “So we’re either going to get the layup, or Nigel’s going to get a wide-open jumpshot.”

Colvin had 15 points to lead River Rouge, while Micah Parrish had 13. T.J. VanKoevering — one of the seven players who also played on either the football or soccer title teams in the fall — added 13 points to Wiswary’s 17, while Takens had 10.