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Tyson Acuff’s clutch finishing performance finishes off 48-hour rollercoaster saga, propelling Cass Tech to city title game

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 13, 2020, 10:12 pm

DETROIT — It would’ve been out of place had this particular game had a normal, run-of-the-mill ending.

So it was altogether fitting that the last semifinal of the Detroit Public School league boys basketball tournament was ended prematurely Thursday night, when officials waved off the final 39.2 seconds following a verbal altercation on the floor in between free throws by Cass Tech’s Isaiah Sanders. 

The odd conclusion to the Technicians’ 53-44 win over Communication & Media Arts capped off a rollercoaster 48 hours in which the potential result of the game changed three times, and its venue and date twice.

“Nobody wants to see us win. I think people are tired of us winning. They want to knock us off square, get our focus (off) the game,” Cass senior Tyson Acuff said. “We just stay ready.”

After all of that drama, Cass Tech (16-1) will defend its city title in the tournament title game at 7 p.m. on Friday, facing Douglass (15-3) at the University of Detroit-Mercy’s Calihan Hall.

“It’s just been a rollercoaster. I just tell my guys, ‘Control what you can control, and be ready when called upon.’ There’s always somebody whose conditions are worse than yours, and that’s what we talked about. It’s the playoffs, and it’s the PSL, and if we concentrate on things we can’t control, then the things you can control can end up getting the best of you,” Cass coach Steven Hall said. “It was a trying last 48 hours, but once the time came to perform and do what we could do, we did a good job of that.”

The saga started Tuesday, when the Technicians were initially informed they’d been disqualified from the semifinals for using an ineligible player in Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Detroit Western. By Wednesday morning, the Technicians had been reinstated and the initial ruling overturned, with the game on for later that night.

Then, Wednesday night, the game was pushed back another day to Thursday, and moved from Cass Tech’s home floor to East English Village. 

“The last 48 hours have been up and down roller coaster. Tuesday night, it was released that we were going to be in the city championship, so of course the guys were celebrating — first time in CMA school history that we were going to be playing for the city championship. And then we get a phone call that Wednesday, got news that we had to play, so we had to bring the guys down, get a little sense of reality, and had to prepare ourselves to get ready for this game. We were prepared Tuesday, and then we kind of lost our focus, so we readjusted yesterday, and as you can see, gave Cass a game,” said CMA coach Derrick Edwards, who had a team meeting Wednesday, after the Pharaohs (12-4) found out the news of the reinstatement.

“If we had to play the game, we had to play the game.”

Admittedly, it appeared the Pharoahs’ focus might not have been there early on, as the Technicians jumped out to a 10-2 lead, thanks largely to the hot shooting of Kalen King. The junior hit four first-quarter 3-pointers, and had 13 points in the frame, as Cass led 17-9. 

“That’s gradually what our team has evolved into. We lost four starters from last year. Kalen was on junior varsity last year. Our junior varsity just won a championship, and they’re 19-0. We feel like we have a program right now,” Hall said. “Guys are being nurtured, and when it’s their turn to step up, they step up. Kalen King is big-game tested. I’m sure you know who he is as a football player, and big moments don’t scare him. It’s good to have someone like that to play alongside.”

The Pharaohs managed to hold Acuff down for much of the game, and the Technicians — after leading 29-23 at the half — shot just 2-for-13 in the third quarter, as CMA cut the margin to just three points, 40-37, going into the fourth. 

“My guys came out and executed the game plan. The game plan was to make sure that somebody else beat us, besides Tyson,” Edwards said. “The shooter, No. 2 (King) did his part today to help Cass prevail. I give my guys a lot of credit, to come back from where they weren’t focused to regain their focus, and they came out and executed the game plan to a ’T.’ That’s just a seasoned team, with a veteran coach, and they made the plays down the stretch.”

The lead changed hands three times early in the fourth quarter, with a layup by Jeremiah Henderson with 5:40 giving CMA a 41-40 lead. Cass regained the lead on King’s 3-pointer with 5:25 left, then — after Jeremiah Henderson made it 44-43 CMA with a go-ahead 3 with 4:18 left — Duane Wright’s pull-up jumper with 3:48 left gave Cass the lead for good.

Twenty-four seconds later, Acuff iced it with a transition 3, then scored on a pull-up in the lane, and got loose for a dunk on an inbounds play with 1:20 left. 

“It’s nothing we weren’t prepared for. We were expecting that — they were denying me all game, but we’ve still got ways to work around that. We were expecting it,” Acuff said of the defensive focus.

Hall has seen his senior take over games in the clutch like that before.

“Every time I open a newspaper, I read about somebody advocating this guy is the best in the state. ‘I got the best in the state.’ I’ve been watching it. Every game, somebody else is getting the light. I could sit here, and talk about my kid is better than this kid, but his body of work speaks for itself. You saw what he did in the closing moments of the game. It’s gotten to the point where we expect him to step up and take over in the crucial moments of games. That’s who he is,” Hall said. 

“In my opinion, I think he’s comfortably the best player in Michigan. And that’s with all due respect to all the other guys. I’m with him every day, and I’ve seen what he can do. They came with a gimmick defense, and he played with composure, did other things, and when it was time to take over at the end of the game, when the game was in the balance, he took over, like Mr. Basketball should.”

Sanders’ first free throw with 39.2 seconds left were the final points of the game.

Officials conferred and called the game finished after it was halted momentarily by a fracas on the CMA side of the floor, before things could escalate. Edwards was in the middle of the jawing, and apologized after the game when he saw the player in the handshake line. 

“It wasn’t anything too big, and I would like to apologize myself, first. I did kind of lose my composure,” the coach said. “I apologized to him, because I was totally wrong.”

Acuff finished with 17, while King had 21. Cordairo Miles had 13 to lead CMA, while Jeremiah Henderson had 10.