Newest Champs Earn Spot in Milan Lore

March 22, 2014

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING — Milan's postgame celebration quickly went from the court to the stands.

Spectators who didn't understand what was taking place were befuddled when the Big Reds headed into the seats at the Breslin Center before receiving their championship trophy. One by one, they hugged an older gentleman many of them may not have heard of until a few days earlier.

The man was Harlan Benjamin, a member of Milan's 1948 MHSAA Class C championship basketball team. The Big Reds, playing beyond the Regionals for the first time since, found inspiration from this living, breathing embodiment of the school's athletic history.

"He inspired them before the game," Milan coach Josh Tropea said after the championship drought ended with a 78-59 victory over Benton Harbor in the Class B Final on Saturday. "They wanted to make sure they showed their appreciation."

Benjamin, 81, was a sophomore on the Milan team that beat Saginaw Ss. Peter & Paul, 45-42, for the Class C title. He went on to win the 120-yard and 180-yard hurdles at the 1950 Class C Track and Field Final, an accomplishment that led to his enshrinement in the Milan sports Hall of Fame.

He spoke with the Big Reds on Tuesday before their MHSAA Quarterfinal game against Wayland. He sought out Milan assistant coach Chris Pope before Saturday's title game and presented him with a memento.

"He gave us his state championship patch and he duct-taped over the '1948' and put '2014,' and said, 'Go win one for me,'" Tropea said. "To have him here and to have him on the floor with us after the game, like I told the kids on Thursday before we came here, whether you win this thing or not, someone's going to want you to speak in 40, 50, 60 years from now. After this weekend, they've solidified that. They're going to be remembered forever in Milan."

There's a good chance that it won't take 66 years for Milan to celebrate another MHSAA championship.

Four of the Big Reds' five starters are juniors, including the stars of Saturday's game.

Junior guard Latin Davis was 7 for 7 from 3-point range, tying the Finals record for baskets beyond the arc, while scoring a career-high 34 points. Nick Perkins, a 6-foot-7 junior center, scored 24 points on 10 for 16 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.

"All year, we've been selling that players three through eight have to be the difference, because we know what Nick and Latin are going to do," Tropea said. "Before we went on the floor tonight, we said, 'Tonight, it's about the stars.' The best players showed up, and they won the game for us."

Davis' performance was particularly memorable.

He became the fifth player in Finals history to hit that 3-point mark. But only he and Berrien Springs' Shelby Wood (Class C, 2006) had a perfect shooting night from long range.

"I was coming off screens and was just feeling it, so I just shot it," said Davis, who averaged 1.3 3-pointers a game and never made more than five before Saturday. "My coach has been telling me to shoot off ball screens all year, so that's what I did tonight. I just kept shooting. I made one and kept hitting them and just kept shooting."

Toriano Smith of Saginaw Buena Vista (1990, Class B), Andrew Mitchell of Detroit East Catholic (1997, Class D) and Brian Watkins of Detroit Rogers (2005, Class D) also hit seven 3-pointers in a Final.

"Basically, we just tried to get out of the way," Perkins said. "After you set a screen once and he's shooting like that, he's basically going to make every one. After the fourth one, when we saw them start falling and he's draining it, you just keep letting him shoot."

Benton Harbor took its only lead when a 3-pointer by Jaton Gunn made it a 3-2 game with 6:07 left in the first quarter. Milan never trailed after scoring the next six points.

The Big Reds led 22-15 after one quarter, hitting seven consecutive field goal attempts during one stretch. They built their lead to 32-22 on a 3-pointer by Davis with 4:27 left in the second quarter, taking a 43-35 lead into halftime. Davis had 17 points in the first half on 7 for 17 shooting, dishing out three assists. Perkins had 14 points in the first half, shooting 7 for 11 and grabbing five rebounds.

Benton Harbor did not sub in the first half, while Milan got backups Thomas Lindeman (six minutes) and Garrett Gardette (four minutes) extensive playing time in the second quarter after going with its starters for the first. The Tigers' first substitution came with 6:06 left in the third quarter.

Davis opened the second half by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers, igniting an 8-0 run that extended Milan's lead to 51-35 with 5:25 left in the third quarter. The Tigers cut the lead to 56-46 with 2:25 left in the third, but the Big Reds scored the final nine points of the quarter to take a 65-46 lead into the fourth.

"The difference was in the third quarter we actually started playing some defense," Tropea said. "We hang our hat on our defense. It really wasn't there in the first half. That's all we talked about at halftime was we've got to do a better job rebounding the basketball, not giving up so many second-chance points and transition points. We really clamped down in the third quarter."

It didn't appear that this would be the season that Milan (25-3) ended that title drought when the Big Reds lost their first two games and started out 5-3. But they ended the season with a 20-game winning streak.

Benton Harbor (17-10), playing in its 10th MHSAA Final and first since 1993, was attempting to win its first crown since repeating as Class A champion in 1965. Overcoming Milan's 58.5-percent shooting from the floor proved to be too much for the Tigers.

"They were hot," Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said. "We had a game plan. We had hands up, but (Davis), I don't think he missed a three. Then the big (Perkins) was a force down low. 

“We already knew, win or lose, we were proud of this bunch. We came in unranked. So, it might hurt right now, but like I told you (Friday), God is still good. He blessed the city. These two seniors (John Robinson Jr. and Cortez Moore) brought the city together. It's something to be proud of. There's been love all over. We just ran into a hot team tonight."

Robinson had 19 points, Jaton Gunn 16 and Moore 13 for Benton Harbor. Gunn had 11 points in the first quarter, hitting three 3-pointers.

Milan played without starting senior forward Jake Novak, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee during Tuesday's Quarterfinal victory. He walked onto the court on crutches during pregame introductions and greeted each of Milan's starters as they were called out.

"It felt really great to know that everybody cares about this team so much," Novak said. "It's really nice to see the whole community come out and support the team. It's nice to know everybody cares. Even though I can't play, I was doing everything I can to help the team."

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

PHOTOS: (Top) Milan celebrates its first MHSAA title since 1948 by hoisting the trophy at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Milan’s Latin Davis tries to get around Benton Harbor’s John Robinson, Jr.

HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Benton Harbor's John Robinson Jr. scored in transition in the second quarter of the Class B championship game against Milan. Robinson led the Tigers in scoring with 19. (2) Nick Perkins makes a Calvin Johnson-esque catch of a long pass by Lance Lewis for the dunk in the Class B title game. Perkins had 24 points and 10 rebounds for Milan, which defeated Benton Harbor, 78-59.

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.

A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.

Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.

Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.

“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.  

In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.

She answered, and it was Beckett.

“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”

Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.

At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.

“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.

Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.

“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”

But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.

Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.

That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.

“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”

Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.

However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.

“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.

Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.

It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.

“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”     

Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.

“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”

Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.

“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.