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.”
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.
HOWARDSVILLE - There is a sign that hangs inside Howardsville Christian School's tiny gymnasium that accurately depicts the mission for the Eagles during the 2023-24 boys basketball season.
It reads "In Jesus' name we play."
Ken Sparks and the eight players on his varsity basketball roster have challenged themselves to help one another understand what it means to give their season to God.
"My goal is to help these boys find gratitude in playing for a greater power than themselves," said Sparks, a varsity standout himself at Howardsville from 1996-2000, member of the 1,000-point club and an honorable mention all-stater his senior year.
Nestled on the border between St. Joseph and Cass counties along Bent Road, Howardsville Christian, a Division 4 school for its sports with fewer than 80 students, has enjoyed a rich tradition of spiritual learning both in the classroom and on the court and playing fields.
The contribution of many talented athletes from several families has been instrumental in Howardsville's athletic success for years, especially this school year.
Howardsville won District titles this fall in boys soccer and girls volleyball. Now the Eagles hope to carry that momentum over to the basketball court.
With four starters returning, Sparks is looking for Howardsville’s boys team to battle for supremacy in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League and improve on a 13-10 record from last season. The Eagles finished 7-7 in the league last winter and endured a disappointing District Semifinal loss to Marcellus. Howardsville Christian had won its District the season in 2021.
"We competed well with all the teams on our schedule and lost to some teams we shouldn't have," Sparks said. "There are eight teams in our conference, and this season we need to beat Benton Harbor Countryside to be the top team. It's been a good league for us."
Senior twin brothers Colin and Dylan Muldoon return for Howardsville, along with junior cousin Kaden Sparks, son of the head coach, and junior John Paul Rose.
The Muldoon brothers both are beginning their third year as varsity starters.
"Working together as a team is something we really want to do well. A lot of teams set a goal of winning Districts. The last two years we've fallen short of that goal. It's definitely something we want to achieve this year," Colin Muldoon said.
Dylan Muldoon echoed that sentiment.
"Our success in soccer makes us want to attain the same goals in basketball. We know we are capable of reaching those, so I think it makes us want to pull things together," Dylan Muldoon said. "There's a lot of long-distance running in soccer, but there's also a lot of quickness and turning in basketball, especially when you're guarding or driving around someone. You just have to be quick."
Kaden Sparks, another three-year starter, will be Howardsville's best shooting guard.
"Winning Districts is achievable. We have to learn to work together. I played summer ball, and the biggest takeaway is that it taught me that I have to always give 100-percent effort out there. We had a great soccer season, and It’s taught us a lot about accountability," Kaden Sparks said.
Rose will be Howardsville Christian's starting point guard. He has been a starter since his freshman year, along with Kaden Sparks.
"The team chemistry and communication we had in soccer easily transfers over to basketball. As our point guard, it's important for me to try to get the ball to other guys who have open looks," Rose said. "I want to be more aggressive defensively, push the ball up the floor more and increase my scoring."
In addition, Ken Sparks believes the physicality a majority of his team learned from soccer will be a big benefit on the basketball floor.
"You build up your physicality from playing soccer with having to always body up. Watching them play sometimes hurts me, but that's what I want them to do in basketball. It helps them to want to draw contact and be physical on the floor," Ken Sparks said.
The lack of upperclassmen on Howardsville's varsity the last couple of years gave Rose and Kaden Sparks an immediate opportunity to play as freshmen.
"The fact John Paul and Kaden had that early chance at the varsity level is really paying off now,” Ken Sparks added. “Kaden is an excellent shooter. I want him to get the confidence that I had when I was in high school. He tends to be a little more passive on the floor than I like, but he's finally getting that aggressive nature that you need offensively.”
Kaden, Colin Muldoon and Rose all averaged double-digit scoring last season, while Dylan Muldoon is the Eagles' best defensive player. The Muldoon brothers will serve as Howardsville's team captains.
"Kaden is very self-motivated to become a better basketball player. His goal is to be the best player that he can be," Ken Sparks said. "John Paul is explosive and has really refined his jump shot to where he can be a scoring threat. He sees the floor very well and can really push the ball up the floor without turning it over. We're going to see big strides from him because of his determination and drive.
"Colin is a great overall player. He's a threat from the outside and can score inside with his height as well. If we're going to be successful, he and Dylan have to bring the same drive that John Paul and Kaden bring to the court.”
"I've coached all of the guys on our team for the last three seasons except one,” Sparks added. “We talk about being well-rounded. These guys are the best academically and spiritual leaders in our school."
Howardsville Christian’s most well-known alumni is Dylan Jergens, the third-leading scorer in state history with 2,782 career points.
During the fall soccer season, the Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose helped Howardsville win a second-straight District title. The Eagles then lost 5-0 in the Regional Semifinal to eventual Division 4 champion Muskegon Western Michigan Christian. Both Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose were named to the first-team all-BCS and District soccer squads.
The Muldoons were the two main catalysts in the Eagles' soccer run, along with Lukas Krueger. Dylan Muldoon had 28 goals and nine assists, while Colin Muldoon posted 14 goals and eight assists. Krueger added 19 goals to go with 16 assists. Kaden Sparks had five goals and four assists, and Rose added three goals and three assists.
Steve Muldoon, Colin and Dylan's father and Howardsville's head boys soccer coach, sees many correlations between soccer and basketball that will bring the Eagles success in hoops this winter.
"Communication is key. A team that doesn't talk on the field/court isn't going to win. They learn how to correct and encourage one another to deal with problems without getting too negative," Steve Muldoon said. "Individually, they learn how to anticipate. There isn't much difference between anticipating a pass and stepping in front of it in soccer or basketball or making a hard run down the court/field to get open for a layup/counterattack. They learn how to react and make the correct decision under pressure. The skills needed to do it in soccer and basketball are different, but most of it is mental and that carries over."
Determination was another big factor for Howardsville's soccer success this fall.
"We beat Lansing Christian this fall in a weekend soccer tournament and they are a much bigger and physical team than us, but we managed to beat them," Colin Muldoon said. "That win gave us a lot of confidence for the remainder of the season that we could beat anyone."
The family dynamic doesn't stop with Howardsville's boys basketball team.
Senior Kyla Sparks, Ken's daughter and Kaden's older sister, is one of three cousins on the roster for a Howardsville girls team that finished 12-11 last year. All five starters are back for that Eagles team as well.
"As a team, we want to improve on last year's record. With all our starters back, we feel we have a good shot to finish at the top of both our conference and District. Most of our basketball team also played volleyball this fall, and we view us all as family," Kyla Sparks said. "Being able to play with my two cousins makes good lifelong memories."
Kyla Sparks, who averaged 12 points per game her junior year, starts with sophomore cousins Kelsie Muldoon and Kate Evans. Those three also started on the varsity volleyball team that captured its first District title since 1997.
Coincidently, the mothers of Kyla, Kelsie and Kate were all on the 1997 District champion volleyball team.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Colin Muldoon drives to the basket against his twin brother Dylan Muldoon during recent Howardsville Christian boys basketball practice. (Middle) Eagles varsity boys basketball coach Ken Sparks, far left, is pictured by the school's trophy case with his four returning starters Colin Muldoon, Dylan Muldoon, Kaden Sparks and John Paul Rose. (Below) The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (Top and middle photos by Scott Hassinger. District championship photos courtesy of Howardsville Christian School.)