EAST LANSING – Triston Nichols has had quite the high school sports season so far.
The Warren De La Salle Collegiate junior standout helped the football team win a Finals championship in the fall and then helped deliver the same result on the hardwood four months later.
The Pilots pulled away in the fourth quarter to defeat 2021 champion Grand Blanc 67-58 in Saturday’s Division 1 title game at the Breslin Center.
It was De La Salle’s first Finals basketball title. The Pilots finished Class B runners-up in 1982.
“I actually brought (my football championship ring) with me, and I think it’s my good luck charm,” said Nichols, who had 17 points, including two timely 3-pointers in the second half, and five rebounds.
“It was definitely harder to win this one than football, and we went through adversity and we just did our job throughout the season. We locked in, and our connection got better and better.”
While there were high expectations that the football team could win a championship in the fall, duplicating that feat in basketball seemed unlikely after De La Salle finished fourth in the Detroit Catholic League Central and lost four of its last six games in the regular season.
Pilots’ junior Nino Smith, who led a balanced scoring attack with 18 points, said the rigors of their league helped prepare them for this historic run.
“Earlier in the season we went to double overtime against (Orchard Lake) St. Mary’s and showed a lot of resiliency even though we came up short,” Smith said. “A lot of games in the Catholic League came down to last possessions, so I think that really helped us.”
De La Salle (19-7) led 27-24 at the half, but watched its lead evaporate as Grand Blanc pulled away with a 14-4 surge and went up 38-31 midway through the third quarter.
The Pilots countered with a 10-0 run to regain the lead as senior Tamario Adley converted back-to-back three-point plays during that stretch.
Adley finished with 12 points and was 6-of-6 from the free throw line.
“The kids were able to fight through adversity and it’s in their mental make-up to continue to fight, and the last few comebacks have gone our way,” De La Salle coach Gjon Djokaj said.
The Pilots held a slim 42-40 lead entering the final quarter, but never relinquished it thanks to several clutch plays and made free throws.
“We made winning plays down the stretch, and I thought overall we got contributions from a lot of different players at different times,” Djokaj said. “That’s what we’ve been built on all season long, and I’m happy to be going out with a state championship and the way we got here.”
Junior guard RJ Taylor kept the Bearcats (21-5) within striking distance in the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 28 points and seven 3-pointers.
“He's a heck of a player and made it tough on us,” Djokaj said. “He made individual-effort plays that I haven't seen in a while from one player. He should hold his head up high for the way he competed and carried his team.”
Tae Boyd added 14 points and eight rebounds for Grand Blanc, which won its first Finals basketball title a year ago.
“This was an unbelievable run, and everybody counted this team out from the beginning of the year. Nobody believed in this team,” Grand Blanc coach Mike Thomas said. “I take my hat off because they were out there fighting for themselves, and I take my hat off to Warren De La Salle too, and their student section. That was an unbelievable crowd to where I think that was a really great advantage for them, and they created a lot of emotion and momentum.
“They deserved to win. They outplayed us and outworked us and made more free throws in the end.”
PHOTOS (Top) Warren De La Salle players raise their championship trophy Saturday at Breslin Center. (Middle) The Pilots’ Michael Sulaka (33) attempts to redirect a shot by Grand Blanc’s Tae Boyd (1). (Below) De La Salle’s Nino Smith (0) is defended by the Bobcats’ RJ Taylor (10). Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
We are down to the final four weeks of this MHSAA boys basketball season – and while the entertaining part is detailed below in our regular Monday report, there’s some major data crunching underway behind the scenes as well.
Seeding the top two teams in every District requires thousands of data points – and a season-long process of collecting them all. More than 720 varsity teams are playing this winter, and we’re in the midst of a process of checking their schedules one by one – about a 24-hour task by itself to make sure all scheduled games are showing, league standings are set up correctly, etc.
Additionally, daily we’re sorting through disputed scores, changes to schedules because of weather or teams that have discontinued their seasons, and other adjustments. But we’re always striving for perfection – and when Districts are drawn and those top teams seeded Feb. 26, we hope to have every schedule up to date and every score filled in.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. North Farmington 68, Muskegon 55 These two have lived at or near the top of Division 1 MPR all season, making this win by the Raiders (12-1) at the 2K23 Showcase at Aquinas College arguably their best, especially considering it also was the first loss for the Big Reds (13-1).
2. Saline 57, Ann Arbor Huron 47 The Hornets (11-4) saw an eight-game winning streak end three days later, but in this one handed Huron (13-1) its lone defeat of the season.
3. Ann Arbor Huron 67, Benton Harbor 55 The River Rats, meanwhile, rebounded immediately with a 13-point win over Dexter and then a 67-55 victory over Benton Harbor (13-3) at Aquinas.
4. Warren Lincoln 52, Grand Rapids Northview 37 The Abes (12-3) just keep impressing, this time with a big win over a Northview team matching their 12-3 record, also during the 2K23 Showcase.
5. Iron Mountain 64, Powers North Central 58 This matched arguably the best in the Upper Peninsula in Divisions 3 and 4, respectively, with the Mountaineers moving to 13-1 and the Jets to 11-2.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Detroit U-D Jesuit (14-2) The Cubs have won outright or shared the last two Detroit Catholic League Central championships, and they’re hoping to run that streak to three by winning Friday’s rematch with first-place Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (14-1). A 68-53 defeat to the Warriors on Jan. 24 and a 67-64 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s on Jan. 6 have left Jesuit a game back, but the Cubs do have a sweep of reigning Division 1 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate plus early impressive nonleague wins over Clarkston and Ferndale.
Kalamazoo Central (13-2) After just missing the Division 1 Semifinals a year ago – losing to Northview by two in a Quarterfinal – the Maroon Giants are ahead of their 16-win pace from that finish with their only losses to Brother Rice and Battle Creek Lakeview (11-3), the latter by a point. They also defeated Lakeview in the teams’ first meeting, handed Mattawan its only loss and most recently defeated Detroit Renaissance at the 2K23 event.
Ferndale (7-6) Few if any have played a tougher schedule, especially considering Ferndale is Division 2 playing most of the Division 1 powers. The Eagles are No. 5 in Division 2 MPR despite a 1-5 start including losses to Brother Rice, Jesuit, St. Mary’s and Muskegon, and then a two-point loss to North Farmington last week. Meanwhile, Ferndale has defeated Grosse Pointe South (13-3), Flint Beecher (12-3), Clarkston (11-5) and River Rouge (10-5). The North Farmington rematch is Feb. 24, and a Feb. 11 matchup with Port Huron Northern should also boost MPR.
Grand Rapids Christian (10-4) The Eagles may be in fourth in the Ottawa-Kent Conference White, but they are No. 6 in Division 2 MPR. Three of the four losses were to league opponents, but Christian is coming off a 55-53 double-overtime win over Warren Michigan Collegiate (13-2) on Saturday at Aquinas. An early win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central and a Jan. 21 victory over De La Salle also stand out.
Flint Beecher (12-3) The Bucs are off to another big start after last season’s finish at the Division 3 Semifinals, losing only to Detroit Cass Tech (17-0), Benton Harbor and Ferndale as Beecher also has loaded up its nonleague schedule. Beecher also has four wins over teams with double-digit victories, with an 80-71 defeat of Flint Hamady (14-2) on Jan. 10 putting the Bucs in first in the Genesee Area Conference Red. The Hamady rematch is Feb. 18, before a major regular-season finish against Goodrich (13-1) and Grand Blanc (14-2).
Napoleon (14-0) The Pirates aren’t sneaking up on anyone after going 19-3 last season, but they are dominating nonetheless. All but one win have been by eight points or more, and Napoleon leads the Cascades Conference after finishing second last year with a pair of losses to Vandercook Lake. The Pirates not only defeated Vandercook in their first meeting, by 40, but next defeated Michigan Center by 17 after the Cardinals ended their season last winter. Napoleon also has a 63-45 win over Big 8 Conference co-leader Concord.
Baldwin (13-1) The Panthers are coming off an 18-5 finish and second place in the West Michigan D League, and they lead it this time by two games and with a win over Mesick after losing both meetings to the eventual league champ a year ago. Baldwin also has avenged a 2021-22 loss to Mason County Eastern and could avenge another hosting Traverse City Christian on Tuesday. The Panthers also have given Marion (11-4) half its losses.
Powers North Central (11-2) As noted above, the Jets are at least among the handful of elite small-school Upper Peninsula teams, No. 4 in statewide Division 4 MPR although second in D4 in the U.P. with Painesdale Jeffers in the top spot. Those two wouldn’t see each other until a Regional Final, where North Central’s 19-5 run ended last season. The Jets only defeats this time are to Division 2 Kingsford and Division 3 Iron Mountain, which stand a combined 25-3.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Goodrich (13-1) at Corunna (12-2) – They’re tied atop the Flint Metro League Stars with Goodrich winning the first meeting 69-54 on Jan. 10.
Friday – Detroit U-D Jesuit (14-2) at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (14-1) – As noted above, the Detroit Catholic League Central title will be on the line, as Jesuit can force a shared championship.
Saturday – Hamtramck (10-5) vs. Kalamazoo Central (13-2) at Benton Harbor – The Cosmos have faced their share of statewide elite as well, and will be seeking what would be one of their most notable wins in this Wilson Chandler Shootout matchup.
Saturday – Flint Hamady (14-2) at Davison (10-5) – Old rivals meet again as Davison is coached by longtime Beecher leader Mike Williams.
Saturday – Saginaw Arthur Hill (7-9) at Saginaw (14-4) – They’ll still have 2023-24 left before one the best rivalries in state history ends with a school merger, but this year’s rematch comes after Saginaw won 57-55 on Jan. 14.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Saginaw player gets to the rim during Friday's 59-54 loss to Mount Pleasant. (Middle) A Montabella player goes to the basket during his team's 43-28 win last week over Carson City-Crystal.(Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)