Beecher Survives on Last-Second Shot

March 24, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – There wasn’t much for Flint Beecher coach Mike Williams to enjoy as he watched Detroit Loyola shred his team’s 15-point lead over the final 14 minutes of Thursday's Class C Semifinal.

But there was one thing he could applaud; his players stayed up when another team, a much less accomplished or experienced team, might have lost its edge.

Junior Malik Ellison believed the reigning MHSAA champ would still end up advancing to Saturday. And he backed it up with the season on the line.

With the Bucs trailing by two points and five seconds to play, Ellison took a handoff from a teammate of an inbounds pass, and with no way to get to the basket, drilled a 3-pointer from five feet behind the arc to give Beecher a 60-59 win as the final second ticked off the clock.

“In practice we run that play all the time,” said Ellison, who also started on last season’s championship team. “(Coach) gives us a situation, like we’re down two and we’ve got to get a bucket. At first on my pump fake, I was like, should I pass? Then I saw (the defender) jump, got a little angle with my arm, and knew it was going in. I felt it.

“Every day I go in the gym, either the Y or I stay after practice, and it’s shots like that just for times like this. I just pulled it through today.”

Beecher (24-2), ranked No. 2 heading into the postseason, will take on Grandville Calvin Christian in Saturday’s Final at 4:30 p.m.

But the Bucs’ attempt to win a fourth Class C title in five seasons looked to be done when Loyola added the final two points of a 24-8 run on sophomore Pierre Mitchell’s two free throws with 47 seconds remaining. 

They made the score 59-55 in the Bulldogs’ favor, and junior Jordan Roland’s bucket with 26 seconds left drew Beecher to only within two. Loyola then missed a pair of free throws with 12 seconds to play, but on the ensuing possession managed to deflect Beecher’s first pass after reaching midcourt out of bounds – setting up the dramatic final five seconds.

After receiving the handoff from senior Aquavius Burks on the wing to the left of the basket, Ellison took one dribble left before jutting back right – he had to a shoot a 3-pointer, as Mitchell gave him no opening to the basket and time was nearly gone. Tilted a bit to the right, Ellison floated a shot that dropped as the clock expired.

“What can I say? Wow. What an incredible ending,” Williams said. “I thought we got a little complacent once we got the lead, and that’s the first time we’ve turned the ball over as many times (18) as we did all year. 

“But one thing about this team and what it’s shown all season, is resiliency, poise and composure in the face of elimination. … I wasn’t proud that we gave up the lead, but after we gave up the lead it was all positive in the huddle. (And) Malik said, ‘We’ve got this.’”

Beecher had trailed Flint Hamady by five points with 40 seconds to play in the District opener before winning 68-62. The Bucs then trailed Southfield Christian by 13 points with nine minutes to play in the Regional Final before coming back for a 78-65 victory.

So trailing late wasn’t new, and neither was the atmosphere at Breslin Center, Beecher’s late-season home most of this decade.

“It helps with the coaching staff, and it helps with the players,” Williams said. “I remember coming here back in 2003, and one of the first things I noticed is the ball bounced a little different on this floor. The atmosphere is a little different than playing in a gym. When you come down here for the first time … you noticed in the first half that Loyola had a hard time adjusting to shooting the basketball. They were shooting the basketball a whole lot better once they got adjusted to the depth perception.”

In fact, Loyola did shoot 29 percent from the floor during the first half and 42 percent during the second, while Beecher was more consistent and finished at 48 percent for the game.

Bulldogs senior Ernest Adams and sophomore Keith Johnson especially found their shots over the comeback run, Adams making all three of his 3-pointers and scoring 11 of his team-high 15 points during the stretch and Johnson making both of his 3-pointers over the final 4:10.

“The bigger thing is what has happened all year for us; these guys played for each other,” Loyola coach John Buscemi said. “Once a few (shots) went, everyone got energized – the guys in the game, the guys on the bench. We love each other, we’re a family, and we just feed off of that. And I think we did tonight."

Adams also had 10 rebounds for Loyola (21-6) and Johnson finished with 10 points. Senior Romari Ennis had 12 points.

Burks had a game-high 22 points for Beecher making 6 of 7 shots from the floor and all seven of his free throws. Ellison had 11 points and senior Jamari Thomas-Newell had 12 points.

Click for the full box score.

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System. 

PHOTO: Beecher players embrace Malik Ellison after his game-winning shot Thursday. (Middle) Loyola’s Pierre Mitchell works to get a shot up while surrounded by Beecher defenders.

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)