Lincoln Beats Buzzer for 1st Basketball Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 16, 2019

EAST LANSING – All eyes were on Ypsilanti Lincoln freshman Emoni Bates on Saturday as the seconds ticked away in the Division 1 Boys Basketball Final. 

None were on Lincoln senior Jalen Fisher. But that all changed when the buzzer sounded. 

Fisher’s rebound and jumper as time expired gave the Railsplitters their first MHSAA boys hoops title with a 64-62 victory over U-D Jesuit at the Breslin Center. 

"At the beginning of this game, I just told (Fisher) to be patient, your time is coming man, be patient,” Lincoln coach Jesse Davis said. “During the timeouts I said, ‘Jalen be patient, your time is coming.’ I didn’t know it was going to come like that, but I’m glad it happened to him, because I believed in him the whole time.”

The last-second shot was the first to win a championship game featuring the state’s largest schools – formerly Class A, now Division 1 – since Lansing Sexton defeated Hamtramck in overtime in Class A in 1959.

Fisher’s shot ended a dramatic final quarter, which saw Lincoln (23-4) rally from a nine-point deficit. The Railsplitters took possession of the ball in a tie game with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining, and drained the clock to set up a final shot. 

That shot was supposed to be for Bates – considered the top freshman in the country – who gathered the ball in the backcourt but was immediately doubled as he came across half court. 

“We trapped him, trying to get the ball out of his hands,” U-D Jesuit coach Pat Donnelly said. “I thought they got a decent, a clean look up top, but it was forced way out. That was what we talked about going in, that we were going to double (Bates) if he caught the ball.” 

Bates passed out of the double team to senior teammate Amari Frye, who launched a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. He thought it was good – he remarked he thinks every shot he takes is good – and so did Fisher, but it hit the side of the iron and caromed to a wide open Fisher who capitalized with the game-winner. 

“I thought it was good, but it hit the top of the rim and came in my hands, so I just shot it and it was good,” Fisher said. “I just shot it, and when it went in, I just saw black. Then I saw people on top of me. It was a good feeling though.” 

Fisher, who played all 32 minutes and finished with 16 points, fell immediately to his back after hitting the shot and was mobbed by his teammates near the Lincoln bench.  

“I talk to my kids about living in the moment, and this was a moment that nobody saw coming but us,” Davis said. “I just think it’s great to have some kids you can take and you start with them when they’re freshman – Amari, Tahj (Chatman), Jalen came when he was a junior – but I’ve been instilling a championship mentality in Tahj and Amari for four years. Then we add somebody like Jalen with exceptional speed, toughness and a will to win, then you add somebody like Emoni Bates who can carry us through tough games and make big shots, and do everything the other guys couldn’t do. It just came out so beautiful, man.” 

The Cubs (25-3) led for most of the game and nearly all of the second half after taking an 11-point lead into halftime. Daniel Friday scored 19 points, while Julian Dozier added 18 and six assists to put their team in control and up 60-51 with five minutes to play. 

But Lincoln fought back and went on an 11-0 run, taking a 62-60 lead on a Frye layup with 1:38 remaining. Dozier responded immediately with a layup of his own to tie the game, but the Cubs wouldn’t see the ball again in the final 1:20. 

“We’re the same kind of team as them; we score points in bunches,” Davis said. “We can get on a run and score. We’re capable of making runs just like them, so I keep telling my team, ‘Hey, keep doing what we do, keep applying pressure on both ends, and some shots will go down for us.’” 

Bates scored in spurts himself, finishing with a game-high 23 points despite not having his best shooting night (7-of-22 from the floor and 1-of-7 from 3-point range). He was 8-of-8 from the free-throw line, however. 

The Cubs played Friday on Bates for much of the game. Friday was giving up five inches to the 6-foot-9 Bates, but had a 45-pound weight advantage. Jordan Montgomery, who was giving up more than a foot in height, also countered with strength. 

“(The U-D Jesuit defense) was good, but I just wasn’t making shots today,” Bates said. “I was getting to my spots, but my shot just wasn’t falling.” 

Bates also had six rebounds and three blocks for the Railsplitters, while Frye finished with 15 points.  

Montgomery added nine points, all on 3-pointers, for the Cubs, while University of Massachusetts-bound senior Jalen Thomas had six points and seven rebounds. 

“I want to congratulate Ypsilanti Lincoln on a tremendously hard-fought victory – they're a good team,” Donnelly said. “Coming into this game we heard all this stuff about, ‘You have to stop Emoni, stop Emoni,’ but we were a lot more concerned with more than Emoni. They have some good players out there.” 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ypsilanti Lincoln celebrates its first MHSAA boys basketball championship Saturday at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Jalen Fisher launches the game-winning shot as the final seconds tick off the clock in the Division 1 Final.

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.)