EAST LANSING – Carlos Johnson knew it was good when it left his hand. His Benton Harbor coaches and teammates knew it, too.
The star sophomore hit the biggest shot on a Saturday night full of them – a 3-pointer with 10 seconds to play – to give the Tigers a 65-64 overtime win against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Class B championship game.
As the final seconds expired, the northwest corner of Breslin Center began celebrating Benton Harbor’s first MHSAA boys basketball title since 1965.
“I was hoping (senior Elijah Baxter) would get me the ball for the last one,” Johnson said. “I passed it to him, and I was like, ‘Oh, I hope he passes it back.’ I was ready for the shot, and I knew it was gonna go in. I was just thinking to go for the kill the whole time. When it left my hand, my eyes lit up and I said, ‘Oh, that’s going in. Straight water.’”
The shot, and an ensuing, frantic defensive stop, sent the Benton Harbor bench and cheering section into hysterics as they celebrated a long awaited return to glory for a program that was among the state’s most dominant more than a half century ago.
It was a history the Tigers embraced, wearing shirts for warm-ups that read, “Farnum Boyz” an homage to their gymnasium and its namesake, former Benton Harbor coach Don Farnum, who led the team to back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965.
“It means a lot to the program, it means a lot to the school system, and it means a lot to the city,” Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said. “This is going to bring us together, this community. Everything is going to go forward now, thanks to these awesome guys right here. They brought the city back. We’re going to go forward from now on and stay positive with one another.”
While a star sophomore led the way with 24 points, 11 rebounds and the game-winning shot, Benton Harbor is otherwise a senior-dominated team, with five playing a major role. And those seniors had been pointing to winning this title since they were in eighth grade – the last time the Tigers made the Class B Final and came up just short in 2014.
“It means a lot to us, because previously it was a weight on our shoulders that it had been so long, but it was a big motivation,” senior guard Dennie Brown said. “Since we were (youngsters) in fourth grade and middle school, we said we were going to win. We didn’t want to be too cocky; we wanted to be humble also with it. We put the pedal to the metal and worked in practice every day.”
The Tigers trailed for most of the four-minute overtime session, and were down 64-62 when Johnson collected a rebound with less than 20 seconds to play. When he got the ball near the top of the 3-point line, he saw his defender backing off him and let the winning shot fly.
“The feeling of it, I can’t even describe it,” Johnson said. “It was just like everything just came to me. I looked up and all I could see was nothing but the lights and Michigan State, and I was like, ‘Oh God, I did that.’”
The game-winner wasn’t the only do-or-die shot with the clock winding down for the Tigers on the night. Senior Shawn Hopkins hit another just to get what was already a back-and-forth contest to overtime.
As Baxter lost control of the ball driving down the lane during the closing seconds of regulation, he saved it from going out of bounds and found Hopkins cutting to the basket. Hopkins avoided the shot-blocking attempt of 6-foot-8 Catholic Central senior Jacob Polakovich to hit a layup and tie the game at 55 as the buzzer sounded.
“I was just thinking be aggressive trying to get to the rim, hopefully draw a foul and get to the line,” Baxter said. “It didn’t go that way, but it’s the state championship game, so you have to show heart and hustle, so I just kept going and trying to save it. Shawn was just in the right spot. It was like a brother thing; he just knew to cut to the rim while I was going out of bounds.”
Hopkins finished with nine points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers (27-1), while TJ Jones had 10 points and Devan Nichols added nine. Baxter dished out six assists to go with his seven points.
Catholic Central (24-3) hit its fair share of big shots down the stretch as well. Junior Darrell Belcher hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put his team up 54-51. He hit another big 3 in overtime to give the Cougars a four-point lead with about two minutes to play. Michigan State-bound senior Marcus Bingham also hit a big 3-pointer in overtime to give the Cougars an early lead.
Belcher and Bingham each finished with 21 points, and Bingham added 13 rebounds. Polakovich added 12 points and 12 rebounds.
But in the immediate aftermath of the loss, disappointment was overshadowing those great performances for Catholic Central.
“It was a really tough way for us to end our season,” Catholic Central coach TJ Meerman said. “I just told our guys, we just got out of the locker room, and I just spent a few minutes telling them how thankful I am, how thankful our staff is, how thankful our school is to have young men like we have up on stage in front of you.
“The game didn’t end the way we wanted it to. We battled, we battled all year long. I’m proud of our guys, and congratulations to Benton Harbor on a big win.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Benton Harbor’s Carlos Johnson (11) blocks a shot during Saturday night’s Class B championship game. (Middle) The Tigers’ Shawn Hopkins looks for an open teammate.
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)