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Howell rallies at home to knock off ‘Cinderella’ Oxford, winning first regional since 2014

By: Matthew B. Mowery, March 7, 2019, 11:00 pm

HOWELL — These moments, they’re all too rare, sometimes.

The host Howell Highlanders rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat one of this season’s Cinderella teams, Oxford, holding on for a 42-37 win in front of a raucous home crowd, to earn the program’s first regional crown since 2014.

“Been dreaming about this for a while, but haven’t gotten a regional win until this year, and it’s just very special to do it at home, with all these fans, and all the community out here, to finally get it done,” said Howell senior Josh Palo, who missed watching the program’s last regional final win as a middle-schooler, because of basketball practice. “I can’t really put it into words. I’ve just gotta focus on our next game. We ain’t done yet. We’ve got big goals to take care of.”

The Highlanders (20-6) advance to Tuesday’s quarterfinal at Grand Blanc, where they’ll face Saginaw (22-3). The Trojans beat Midland (16-8), 66-52, in the regional final at Mt. Pleasant.

If they win that …

Well, let’s just say it’s been a loooooooooong time between trips to the season’s final weekend.

No Livingston County team has reached the Final Four since the Highlanders’ 1927 squad lost 25-18 in the Class B title game, to Grand Haven’s legendary coach Gus Cohrs in the first of his seven titles.

Howell coach Nick Simon has been preaching that it’s possible since the 2014 team broke the seal on postseason success.

“I think that’s part of the reason it’s different (than 2014), and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited. I think I’m more excited because we were ‘backs-against-the-wall’ in the game, and that made it a little more exciting at the end. But the first time, the emotions were overwhelming at the end of the game, and this time it wasn’t like that. We had that experience. I’ve been preaching to the guys that we can do great things, and I don’t think it’s just coach-speak, or anything like that. I really believe it, that we can do those things,” Simon said. “I had a lot of people tell me when we won it (regionals) last time, ‘Hey, embrace this, because it doesn’t happen very often.’ And I definitely appreciate that mentality, but in my mind, I was like ‘It’s going to happen often.’ So I did appreciate it, but I definitely thought we’re going to do this again. This is not our ceiling, either. We’ve been preaching a lot, ‘Go further. Go further. Go further.’ We’re not just happy with where we were before.”

The Wildcats were in territory that had only been charted in ancient history, as well.

Since winning the Oakland Activities Association’s Blue Division, they captured their first district title since 1993, then earned their first regional win since 1948. The last regional title? Way back in 1926.

“I’m proud of the kids. … But gosh dang … 23-2?” Oxford coach Steve Laidlaw said. “I knew we were going to be good. We got on a roll, and when we lost to Ferndale, how we bounced back was so impressive. And then when went into Pontiac, and beat them with a running clock, it was like these kids realized how good they were.

That district was a beast, and we were outstanding Tuesday vs. Milford, and the first half, we were incredible tonight. I mean, we were dialed in defensively.

“Proud of our kids. Gave this community something that we’ll never forget. We’ll never forget.”

The Wildcats were dialed in for the majority of the first half Thursday night, with Michael Raisch (15 points, 13 rebounds) canning a pair of early 3-pointers for an 11-9 lead after one quarter. Zachary Townsend and Connor Nicholson hit second-quarter 3s, as the Wildcats stretched the lead to 23-13 at the half.

“They were just hitting a lot of tough shots, hitting 3s in our eye, and stuff. We just stuck to the game plan, got out and running more in the second half,” Palo said. “They were just hitting tough shots in the first half, but the percentages played out, and we got it done.”

Simon didn’t give his troops a rah-rah speech at the half, but merely tweaked how they were defending Oxford’s Trey Townsend, going back to switching on every screen, and turning up the pressure.

“In the second half, we switched everybody, and we pressured a lot more, and that really go them out out of their flow. They couldn’t get as many open looks, because they couldn’t get into their offense, I thought. A lot of credit to them, because they’re a heck of a basketball team. They also missed shots that I know they make on other nights. Some of it is just how the ball bounced. It didn’t go in for them a couple of times, and it did for us,” Simon said. “Sometimes, you go in, and you try to pump guys up too much, and make it into something that it’s not. We just had to play better. … We just had to do things we needed to do. I thought we looked a little nervous early on. Sometimes when you get guys too amped up, it feeds into those nerves, so I went more with a calm, we’re good approach rather than a rah-rah thing.”

Howell came storming out in the third quarter, outscoring Oxford 15-5 in the frame — thanks to a 10-0 run that stretched across the start of the fourth — and feeding off the energy from the big crowd. It was tied 28-28 going into the final frame, but Kip French’s putback put the Highanders on top, and they’d never give up the lead again. Oxford didn’t score until Trey Townsend’s driving bucket with 4:37 left, and only posted nine points in the final quarter, and 14 in the second half.

“Couldn’t buy a bucket, couldn’t get to the free-throw line. … Credit to Howell, that’s a really good team. But we’ve had good third quarters the entire district, and regionals, and tonight we didn’t. It’s disappointing. But they upped it a notch, give them credit,” said Laidlaw, noting that it was hard to call sets in the din of the Howell gym, but noting that the shot selection was a bigger issue. “We lost our composure. We lost our composure. Yeah. We knew better. Part of it, they were doing such a good job on Trey, when he did get the ball, he was trying to force the issue.”

Trey Townsend hit a pair of turn-around jumpers to make it a three-point game, 40-37, with 3:22 left, but the Wildcats wouldn’t score again until Raisch hit a 3 with 28.5 left to cut it three again. Palo hit a pair of free throws with 48 seconds left, then after an Oxford miss, Honkala sealed it with two more free throws.

As Laidlaw noted, it is hard to beat a team on its home floor in regionals, especially with a crowd like Thursday’s.

“It was special. We were feeding off the energy of our student section, and they were going crazy all game,” Palo said. “We came out second half, and the whole place was jumping. It really got us going.”

Simon concurred.

“Oh, it was unbelievable. Being able to have it at home is an obvious advantage, but it just makes it that much more special to have the community at your back. When we won in ’14 at Linden, there was a lot of the community there, but it was cool to be able to hang around your gym, and have everybody that’s a part of your community be here,” the coach said. “A regular-season game is a high school thing. A playoff game like this is a community thing. And it’s cool to be able to have the whole community at your back.”

The Highlanders’ only home loss was a 46-44 decision to KLAA champ Canton on Feb. 8. Howell lost three times to Canton, as well as Division 2 powerhouse Williamston, and an Okemos team that won a Division 1 regional title of its own.

“I was talking about that with our coaches: That stuff helped us more than anything possibly could. You see more of a team that respects other teams now, and doesn’t fear them, and that’s where it’s at in a game like this,” Simon said. “We played a lot of really, really good teams. …  That does set us up for moments like this to not be scared, and respect people.”