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No. 2 Southfield A&T beats perennial rival Clarkston, setting up showdown for first in OAA Red vs. unbeaten Royal Oak

By: Matthew B. Mowery, January 24, 2019, 11:50 pm

SOUTHFIELD — And now, for something completely different.

For years and years and years, the Oakland Activities Association’s Red Division for girls basketball has seemingly always come down to Clarkston and the resident power from Southfield — Southfield-Lathrup in the old days, and now Southfield A&T after the merger with Southfield High a few years back.

When the league schedules came out, invariably the Wolves would host the Southfield squad early on, and fairly regularly set themselves up for success with a home win, leaving sole possession of the title for the later rematch on the south end of the county.

This year, though, rather than THE game, the south-side matchup between the two perennial contenders is the game BEFORE “THE” game, a prelude to the first-place showdown between No. 2-ranked Southfield A&T and unbeaten Royal Oak, a Division 1 honorable mention.

The Warriors (12-1, 5-0 OAA Red) beat third-place Clarkston (5-6, 3-2 OAA Red) resoundingly on Thursday, 61-31, setting up Tuesday’s battle for first.

“Royal Oak seems to be in that position this year, but I just don’t remember — in my memory, it’s always been either Clarkston and Lathrup, or Clarkston and A&T,” said longtime Lathrup coach Michele Marshall, who took the merged A&T program to the Class A semifinals in its first year of existence two seasons ago. “Which is good, to have that kind of a rivalry, but Royal Oak wants to have something to say about that this year. They’re up next.”

Oh, sure, the others — North Farmington, Rochester Adams, West Bloomfield, Auburn Hills Avondale and Farmington Hills Harrison — have all taken their shots at contention in the Red over the last half-dozen years, most of them the season after winning the OAA White and bumping up.

Tim Micklash’s Harrison squad was the last to pull it off, beating both Clarkston and Southfield-Lathrup in the final week of the regular season to claim the 2013-14 division title.

Most of them came and went, though.

Now it’s Royal Oak’s turn to take a crack at joining the perennial powers.

Like that Hawks squad, the Ravens (11-0, 5-0 OAA Red) are coming off an OAA White crown, bumping up to the Red this year, along with Birmingham Groves. They’ve ripped off five straight league wins, starting with a seven-point victory over Clarkston in December.

For the Wolves, it’s been a different story after making the quarterfinals a year ago, then graduating a ton of talent — and size — and getting a new coach. Clarkston lost its first five games against a murderously tough schedule, then ripped off five straight wins — three of them in league play — to get back to .500 before Thursday’s loss.

“After that first win, it was a big monkey off our back. It was there. We knew how hard our schedule was early on. We knew what we had down the line. We had some goals for this year, and I think we’re right in line with where we expected to be. I was trying to play those expectations out with the girls early in the season, to let them know what we were going to go through early in the season. We should be at this point halfway through. We’re right there. And then we’ve got some goals for the second half of the season,” said first-year coach John Weyer.

“There’s not a whole lot of surprises, especially in the OAA Red. You know you’re not going to have a night off. We were managing expectations early on, and now continuing for the rest of the season.”

Clarkston played like the Wolves of the last five games in the first quarter, trailing just 13-12 after the game’s first eight minutes. But the talent — and size — disparity played out after that, as A&T put on a 12-0 run in the second quarter, and quickly pulled away for good.

The Warriors led 30-16 at the half and 48-21 headed to the fourth.

“We’ve been road warriors so far this year. We’ve had way more road games than home games, and for whatever reason, we start slowly at home. Eventually, we kick it into gear, but just a slow start. … We’ve been doing it at home,” Marshall said. “That’s what we’ve been working on with them is to come out with that energy from the very beginning, but we’ve just gotta get a better start when we’re in this gym.”

The size disadvantage was enough to force the Wolves to go to a zone to try to slow down A&T, but that didn’t help when the Warriors were able to get out and run off turnovers or missed shots.

“We were excited. We’re so young. I think we can play with anybody, when we’re at the top of our game. We showed that out here in the first quarter. And then we started getting in a lot of trouble on the boards. They’ve got a lot of size, and we don’t. We’ve just gotta work harder,” Weyer said. “We felt we had to, switch it up on them (with the zone), give them a different look a couple of times down.  Some of those possessions, that looked like a college team. I’ve watched college games that don’t look that good.”

The Warriors do have plenty of college-level talent on the floor, with Cleveland-area transfer Soleil Barnes, a Toledo signee, and Marshall-signee Alexis Johnson, as well as D-I level recruits in Cheyenne McEvans and Jasmine Worthy.

Getting it to all mesh is another issue, especially with Barnes and Worthy (a transfer from Groves) coming to the team new this year.

“Talk about managing — it is exactly that,” Marshall said. “At the end of the day, I think we’re going to need all that talent for us to be able to get us as far as we want to go, which is to win the championship. We have an inside game, we have an outside shooter, we have kids that can get to the basket. I would be happy if we had all of those several kids in double figures — that makes it harder for you to figure out who you’re going to stop with us, but also it does mean that some games, I’ve gotta get Worthy going, some games I’ve gotta make sure Barnes is getting her shots. Other games, I gotta make sure that McEvans is getting to that basket, or that Alexis Johnson is that other post player in there that goes inside out. But it’s a great problem to have. I’d rather see 10, 14, 10, 12 — something like that up and down my lineup.”

They were close to that on Thursday.

Johnson had 20 points, six assists and five rebounds, Barnes had 14 points, six rebounds and eight steals, while McEvans (13 points, 13 rebounds) and Worthy (10 points, 10 rebounds) both had double doubles.

The Warriors are a far more balanced team than a year ago, when McEvans and Johnson had to carry the bulk of the scoring load, or even than two years ago, when University of Michigan-bound Deja Church took on the majority of the load.

“You have a complete team. What we’re working on is building our bench. Two years ago, you had Church, and she could just carry the load for us. And then Alexis and Cheyenne grew up last year, but I think they’ll tell you they’re very happy for the extra help,” Marshall said. “Adding Worthy, having Kayiona Willis come into her own, adding Soleil Barnes. It just makes things easier for us as a team. But we have to understand that, together as a team we have to continue to play.”

It has been easier on the two longest-tenured Warriors. Johnson played as an eighth grader at the program then known as Novi Franklin Road Christian, then was at Southfield for a year before the programs merged, playing three more years for the Warriors. McEvans started as a freshman on that first A&T team, as well.

“Yeah, instead of me and Cheyenne having to worry about scoring points so our team can win, we can just relax and have fun. We win and have fun — it’s not just all about ‘We have to do this, and we have to do that …’” Johnson said.

“I think the biggest difference this year is that our team, we like each other. We’re not here just to play basketball. We’re friends, and we genuinely enjoy each others’ company. Playing together is just so natural. I’ve known Cheyenne for like for five years — I’ve just known Soleil for a year, but I feel like I’ve known her as long as Cheyenne, and we just fit together like a puzzle.

“We didn’t really know Jazz — we’d played against her, but we didn’t really know her — but Jazz fit in too good, because we needed a big girl, and she was like the missing piece that we needed.”

A&T’s only loss was in the first week of the season, falling by two points, 45-43, to reigning Class A champion Saginaw Heritage, currently the No. 1 team in Division 1. Since then, they’ve steadily gotten more cohesive.

“We’ve been playing really good basketball for the last seven games or so,” Marshall said. “The pieces are coming together.”