Hopkins and Baxter team for 35 points to lead Benton Harbor past Rouge, 60-49, in a Class B semifinal
East Lansing – Last season Benton Harbor, one of the most storied and proud programs on the state’s west side, was embarrassed in the semifinals by New Haven, 78-49. Benton Harbor trailed 43-19 at halftime and was never in the game.
The Tigers had something to prove this season. Two of the starters on the 2016-17 team are seniors now. And it should not be a surprise to anyone that those two players played a major role in the Tigers’ victory on Friday.
Shawn Hopkins scored 18 points and Elijah Baxter added 17 to lead Benton Harbor to a 60-49 victory over River Rouge in a Class B semifinal at the Breslin Center.
Benton Harbor (26-1) will make its first trip to the final since 2014 and will play Grand Rapids Catholic Central (24-2) for the title on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Catholic Central, playing in its first semifinal since 1992, upset top-ranked and defending state champion New Haven, 69-53, in the second semifinal.
Benton Harbor hasn’t won a state title (Class A) since 1965.
“I knew we had to stay focused,” Baxter said. “I wanted to prove a point. We didn’t play well last year. This was for our community.”
Thanks to Baxter’s perimeter shooting, Benton Harbor broke open a close game by outscoring River Rouge 22-12 in the third quarter to take a 37-27 lead.
Baxter made three 3-pointers in the final 2:17 including one from 27 feet just before the horn sounded.
As it did in the other loss River Rouge suffered this season, the Panthers had difficulty scoring. On Feb. 16 the Panthers were blitzed by Southfield Christian, 68-45.
“Rouge is similar to us,” Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said. “But they don’t shoot well. So we sagged off in the second half.”
The Panthers were 0-of-6 from the 3-point range in the second half, 2-of-9 for the game.
The Panthers experienced a cold spell following two free throws by Jayvien Torrance-Jackson with 17.4 seconds left in the third quarter. River Rouge didn’t score again until three minutes into the fourth when Legend Geeter made his third basket of the game to end what was a 7-0 Benton Harbor run. Nigel Colvin followed with a basket that brought the Panthers to within 51-41 with 4:11 left.
River Rouge was forced to foul in the fourth and the Tigers made enough of their free throw attempts to keep the Panthers at arm’s length. Benton Harbor was 11-of-16 from the line in the fourth.
Hopkins, an athletic 6-4 wing, was the best player in this game. In addition to his 18 points, Hoskin had 13 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. A far cry from his play in last season’s semifinal.
“Last year I didn’t play hard,” Hopkins said, and he repeated that statement. “I didn’t play hard. This season my teammates pushed me. My coaches pushed me. They pushed me to my potential.”
Hopkins had four points and two rebounds in last season’s semifinal.
Geeter made a fine play to end the first quarter that enabled the Panthers to tie the score at 12-12. After a River Rouge miss, Geeter stole the ball, missed a short jumper then got the rebound and scored just beating the horn.
The score was tied four times in the quarter and Hopkins scored half of the Tigers’ points, the last two coming on a putback with 1:06 left that gave Benton Harbor a 12-10 lead.
Colvin ended what was a highly entertaining first half with a 3-pointer with five seconds left that tied the game, for the eighth time, at 25-25 for the Panthers.
Each team had 12 points in the paint and each had six turnovers. River Rouge took advantage of its depth as the Panthers’ reserves outscored those of the Tigers, 15-2.
Hopkins’ 3-pointer with 1:49 left in the half gave Benton Harbor a 23-18 lead, the largest by either team.
River Rouge took fewer 3-point attempts (6-3) choosing instead to go to the basket more often. The Panthers attempted 10 free throws (made seven) and Benton Harbor was 2-of-2.
Geeter, one of the state’s top freshman, played seven minutes and had six rebounds, five points, and a block.
Colvin led River Rouge (23-2) with 15 points, Donovan Freeman had 12 and Geeter had eight points and nine rebounds.
For Benton Harbor, Carlos Johnson, a 6-6 sophomore, had nine points and nine rebounds.
River Rouge has but one senior (Torrance-Jackson) on its roster and this lack of experience likely affected the outcome.
“It’s a great experience to be here,” River Rouge coach Mark White said. “I’m not making an excuses. I’m looking forward to having seniors.
“One of our goals is to control tempo. We like to score in transition. They were just better at it than us.”
White will get his wish next season. The Panthers have seven juniors on their roster.