Benton Harbor Wait Ends in OT Thriller

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 24, 2018

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.”

Click for the full box score.

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. 

Ferndale Caps Winter Season with 1st Boys Hoops Title Since 1966

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 25, 2023

EAST LANSING – One team was going to end a long championship drought in Saturday’s boys basketball Division 2 Final.

Ferndale’s was especially lengthy, and spanned more than five decades.

And now it is no longer.

The Eagles won their first Finals championship in 57 years with a 44-38 victory over Grand Rapids South Christian at Breslin Center.

Ferndale had last won a state title in 1966.

“The drought is over,” Eagles coach Juan Rickman said. “That’s big time, and the biggest part about making it down here was seeing how charged up the community was and the school was so charged up. It’s the greatest feeling to see how vested our community was in our success.”

Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim.Ferndale senior Christopher Williams led the way with 16 points and four rebounds.

“It feels great,” Williams said. “Especially since the past four years we’ve been to the same place and lost twice in a row to the same team, and now it feels like weight is lifted off my shoulders.

“We started off the season 1-5, and going till now we knew if we stayed together through adversity then we could do it. And it made it more impactful that it was our coach’s first state title, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Added senior point guard Cameron Reed, who had a game-high seven assists: “It’s incredibly special. I wasn't born back then, my teammates weren’t born and my coaches weren’t born. It definitely rejuvenated the whole city and community.”

Ferndale led 8-4 at the end of the first quarter, and both teams shot poorly in the first half. The Eagles connected on a paltry 24 percent from the field, and South Christian on 35 percent of its attempts. Nate Brinks drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sailors a 16-14 halftime lead. 

Junior guard Jake Vermaas opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 19-14, but Ferndale made a charge.

The Eagles sliced the deficit to one (25-24) on a 3-pointer by Trenton Ruth, and Cameron Reed tied it at 28-28 with an acrobatic layup.

“Our team was mentally strong, and I’m so proud of them for their accomplishment,” Rickman said. “Just so committed to the process and just being resilient.”

Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.An 8-2 spurt by Ferndale over the first three minutes of the fourth quarter made it 36-30.

“That was extremely important, and we always want to win the first four minutes,” Rickman said. “And we tried to open up the fourth quarter with what we call a kill; we want to get five straight stops and score on two or three of those possessions so we can build a lead. We did that fairly well against a good team.”

South Christian was attempting to win football and basketball Finals championships during the same school year, and was looking for its first basketball title since 2005.

“It was a really hard-fought game and I thought we played at our speed, but it got away from us a little bit,” first-year Sailors coach Taylor Johnson said.

“But it doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year. We’ve been through it all, including three season-ending injuries, and to still make it to the state finals is an incredible feat.”

Senior Jacob DeHaan and Vermaas led the Sailors with 14 points apiece, while senior Sam Medendorp added seven points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Ferndale raises the Division 2 championship trophy Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Middle) Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim. (Below) Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.