• Michigan

Johnson’s late 3-pointer leads Benton Harbor past Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 65-64 in Class B Final, for first title since 1965

By: Jeff Dullack, March 24, 2018, 10:00 pm

East Lansing – Time was running out in the overtime session in the Class B final and Benton Harbor trailed Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 64-62. Benton Harbor sophomore Carlos Johnson didn’t have any interest in settling for a tie to send the game into a second overtime.

Instead, the 6-6 forward went for the win.

Johnson came up with a rebound after a missed Catholic Central rebound, passed the ball off to senior guard Elijah Baxter, only to get the ball back with less than 20 seconds left to play. Johnson dribbled the ball to the top of the key, pulled up and made a 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Catholic Central 6-foot-11 star and Michigan State signee Marcus Bingham, Jr., to give his team a 65-64 victory.

The Cougars tried a last-second shot but missed.

Johnson admitted that after giving the ball up to Baxter, he hoped to get the ball back to take a potential game-winning shot and said he had his mind set on going for the win.

“I was really hoping they’d give me the ball for the last one,” Johnson said. “I passed it to him and I was thinking ‘I hope he’ll pass it back’. I was ready for the shot and I knew it was going to go in. But the whole way, I was just thinking ‘Go for the kill’.”

The win gives Benton Harbor (27-1) its first state championship since 1965, the second of the Tigers’ back-to-back Class A titles.

This season, Benton Harbor paid tribute to its gymnasium, which is named after the last coach to win a state title with Benton Harbor, Don Farnum, something that head coach Corey Sterling said means a lot to his program and the Benton Harbor community now that the Tigers have delivered their first basketball title in over 50 years.

“It means a lot to this program, it means a lot to the school system, it means a lot to the city,” he said. “This is going to bring us together, this community everything will go forward now, thanks to these awesome guys right here. They brought the city back. We’re only going to go forward from now on and stay positive with one another. Don Farnum is the name of the gym, so Elijah Baxter thought of it to dedicate it to the gym, homage to Farnum, but really it was to pay homage to the gym.”

Before getting to the overtime session, Benton Harbor needed another last second heroic as the Tigers trailed 55-53 with just 13 seconds left to play after an Austin Braun free throw for Catholic Central.

On the ensuing Benton Harbor possession, Baxter would sprint the ball up the court and lost control of the ball, but batted the ball back into play and into the hands of senior Shawn Hopkins who laid the ball in before the buzzer to force overtime.

Hopkins admitted that for him, it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“When I saw Elijah lose the ball, I knew I had to cut to the open spot so he could see me,” he said. “And I just made the layup.”

Johnson led the way for Benton Harbor with a game-high 24 and 11 rebounds, while T.J. Jones chipped in with 10 points in the win for the Tigers.

In the extra session, Catholic Central (24-3) used a pair of 3-pointers from Bingham and Darrell Belcher to take a 63-59 lead with less than two minutes left to play.

Saturday’s game saw nine lead changes and six ties, something that Catholic Central head coach T.J. Meerman said his team was accustomed to and credited both teams for making big plays down the stretch.

“Our guys stayed focus,” he said. “They’ve played a lot of basketball and have been in those situations before and it was back-and-forth. For us, anyways, aside from the outcome, that was a fabulous high school basketball game. It’s what you want in the state finals, both crowds were great, their players made big plays, we made big plays. Unfortunately, tonight they made one really big one at the end to win it. But it was a great game to be a part of and I’m proud of our guys.”

Bingham and Belcher each scored 21 points on the night to lead the Cougars, and Bingham also tallied 13 points in the loss. Jacob Polakovich finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds as well for Catholic Central.

With Benton Harbor looking to come back in the closing minutes, senior Devan Nichols would first account for a layup to cut the deficit down to 63-61 with 1:34 left to play and later would knock down two out of three free throws with just 40 seconds left, cutting the Catholic Central lead to 63-62, setting up Johnson’s game-winner.

After his game-winning shot, Johnson said that he couldn’t believe what had happened and was still at a loss for words nearly 30 minutes after the end of the game.

“The feeling was like – I can’t even describe it,” he said. “Everything just came to me, I looked up and all I saw were the lights at Michigan State. I just thought ‘Ah, God, I just hit that. It’s game time’.”