Big Reds Come Up Big Time in 4th Quarter

March 21, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – One quarter – 8 minutes – remained in Friday’s last Class B Semifinal at the Breslin Center. Time appeared to be running out for Milan as it trailed Detroit Douglass by eight points.

And this was the scenario – almost – that the Big Reds wanted. 

Sure, they would’ve liked to be trailing by less. And they probably didn’t want the ball in a freshman’s hands for the program’s most pressure-packed free throw of the last half century. 

But aside from that …

“We were down eight and we had eight minutes to win this game,” senior guard Donovan Verges said. “We’re yelling at each other, ‘We’ve gotta come back,’ that we’re not losing today. We want to play in that championship game. So we went out there and fought as hard as we could.”

And they eventually edged Douglass, 51-50, in the most exciting Semifinal of this weekend.

Verges nailed a 3-pointer with 3:38 to play to tie the score for the first time since the start of the third quarter. It remained tied 50-50 with 22 seconds to play as the ball passed through four sets of hands near midcourt before falling into those of Milan freshman Garrett Gardette – who was fouled and made the go-ahead free throw with five seconds to play.

He missed the second free-throw attempt. But Douglass’ outlet pass off the rebound landed comfortably back in Verges’ hands with everyone else on the court then too stunned to do anything more before time expired.

Just like that, Milan (24-3) will be facing Benton Harbor on Saturday with a chance to win its first MHSAA title since claiming Class C in 1948.

“All year we said we wanted to make history here at Milan,” Big Reds senior Latin Davis said. “We wanted to leave a legacy. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The 5-foot-9 guard scored 17 points (on 6 of 10 shooting from the floor) with six assists, and 6-7 junior Nick Perkins added 16 points and nine rebounds.

Davis had only three points during the fourth-quarter comeback, but also had two assists. And he played the starring role as Milan’s defense allowed only 12 points in the third quarter and eight during the final period.

“Latin Davis has been underrated for three years. He’s a winner,” Milan coach Josh Tropea said “He’s 64-8 in the last three years, and he’s won more trophies than I care to count. And there’s no question we’re playing (Saturday) because of his leadership and his ability at point guard.”

Douglass coach Nkwane Young said after that his team had had difficulties all season against zone defenses. Milan switched to a stifling 1-2-2 zone for the fourth quarter after using a 2-3 earlier and watching as the Hurricanes found openings when the Big Reds tried switching to man-to-man.

Douglass senior guard Darrell Davis, a Mr. Basketball candidate, ended up spending most of the game stuck on the perimeter and got off only 11 shots in scoring just nine points, 16 below his average.

Senior point guard Terrell Hales did add 11 points, seven rebounds and five steals, with senior forward Deshawn Sanders leading with 15 points and senior forward Daavi Bradley coming off the bench to also score 11 for the Hurricanes (17-10).

Even then, Douglass’ final undoing fell partially on missing 5 of 9 free-throw attempts during the fourth quarter and making only 10 of 21 for the game.

“I thought the third quarter, we had control of it. And in the fourth quarter, I thought we were still in control,” Young said. “Like I told my team, one play doesn’t (lose) the game. There are some things we could’ve done differently, made some free throws. But otherwise, I’m proud of my team.”

The Semifinal run was the first for Douglass, which previously had reached a Quarterfinal in 2010. Davis was part of teams that finished 68-31 and won four District titles over his four seasons despite playing as a Class B in the Class A-heavy Detroit Public School League. Young called his standout the face of his program, and Davis will go on to play next season at the University of Dayton.

“The first year we took it to the Regional (Semifinal), and I wanted to take it farther than that, to the state championship,” Davis said. “My legacy is a good legacy at Fred D. I hope somebody comes in to replace it. I’ve just got to work harder in college, a stepping stone toward life.

“A lot of people doubted us, didn’t think we’d be making it this far. We came up a little short, but it’s OK. We just wanted to win, that’s all.”

Click for a full box score and video from the press conference.

PHOTOS: Milan freshman Garrett Gardette tries to get past Douglass’ Daavi Bradley during Friday’s Class B Semifinal. (Middle) The Hurricanes’ Darrell Davis works to get to the basket. 

HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Detroit Douglass ended the first half on an 11-4 run, including this bucket by Darrell Davis on a break with 3 seconds to go. (2) Nick Perkins had a pair of baskets for Milan in the closing moments of its 51-50 Class B Semifinal win. This putback gave the Big Reds the 50-49 lead at the time.

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.)