By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Few opponents this season had played East Kentwood as close as Southfield Arts & Technology did during Friday’s Class A Semifinal at the Breslin Center.
But Falcons coach Jimmy Carter wasn’t worried. And his players were only a little bit cautious as they set themselves up to play for the school’s first MHSAA basketball title.
East Kentwood led by as many as 20 and by 11 into the final quarter. But although Southfield A&T cut the deficit all the way to two points with 4:45 to play, the Falcons held on for a 55-51 win to earn their first championship game berth.
They’ve claimed 22 of their 26 wins this season by 12 or more points, so their experience in close games is limited.
“Basically, I think we pulled through because I thought we were better than they were, and the kids believed they were better than they were, and everyone else we’ve played we thought we were better than,” Carter said. “That’s not confidence; it’s just a little bit of a fact.
“It may sound a little conceited, but I thought we were underrated all year. We weren’t even ranked in our own area, so we had something to prove that we’re better than what people think. I really like being the underdog, and I think my kids do too.”
East Kentwood, ranked No. 9 in Class A heading into the postseason, will face unranked Flushing in Saturday’s noon championship game. Neither has won an MHSAA championship or played for one.
But the Falcons have been building to this point. East Kentwood won one game in 2012-13, but since have increased that victory total to seven, 11, then 14, and this season sit 26-1 with that only loss in its second game to Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Moving on Friday seemed all but a done deal after the Falcons’ lead reached 20 with 3:47 to go in the third quarter. But No. 6 Southfield A&T – which beat top-ranked Detroit Martin Luther King on the way to the Semifinals – wasn’t about to go that quietly.
The Warriors – a product of the merger between the former Southfield High and Southfield-Lathrup in the fall – launched a 15-0 run with Miss Basketball finalist Deja Church scoring 10 of her game-high 26 points to lead the way. A Church basket with 4:45 to play pulled A&T to within 44-42.
“In the locker room (at halftime), we went in there, and basically I just started (saying) the game isn’t over. We were down 15 points. That’s nothing,” Church said. “So we just tried to shake off the first half, and the third quarter we came out playing really hard, cut the lead down to four or two, and at that point I felt like we could get it.”
A 3-pointer by junior D’Layna Holliman put the Warriors behind only 52-49 with 1:03 to play. After East Kentwood senior Amari Brown made one of two free throw attempts, A&T had two chances to get within two. A foul put Falcons sophomore guard Mauriya Barnes on the line for two free throws with 25 seconds left – and she connected on both, pushing the lead back to six and the game out of reach.
Carter noted after that his team missed a number of layups and connected on only 9 of 24 free throws. But Barnes showed some necessary poise knocking down her pair at crunch time.
“We were confident, but we couldn’t get too cocky. We can’t ever underestimate a team, because when we do, what happens happened,” Barnes said. “We get overconfident, they make a run, and we have to really humble ourselves and we have to play our game no matter what.”
Barnes scored a team-high 16 points and grabbed six rebounds for East Kentwood, and junior center Corinne Jemison also shined in the clutch with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Church added 12 rebounds, four assists and five steals for A&T (22-5). Sophomore forward Alexis Johnson added 13 points and 17 rebounds and freshman guard Cheyenne McEvans grabbed 10 boards.
Even with the loss Friday, Southfield A&T turned what could have been an awkward situation this season into an overall win. Church (Lathrup) and Holliman (Southfield High) recalled after how they didn’t care for each other much before becoming classmates and then teammates this school year. Coach Michele Marshall – who led Lathrup for 21 seasons and to the Class A title in 2005 before taking over this new program – offered lasting praise.
“D’Layna spoke about the fact that a lot of people think this is an upset that we even got here. But the thing I love about the kids I inherited from Southfield High is they play with a chip on their shoulder and they believe anything is possible,” Marshall said. “And so after we started to blend together, and we understood that we were going to be one as a team, my coaching staff and I felt we could get to Breslin.
“We fell short of the state championship, but make no mistake about it: I’m more proud of this team than probably any team I’ve coached.”
PHOTOS: (Top) East Kentwood’s Mauriya Barnes cuts through traffic during Friday’s Class A Semifinal. (Middle) The Warriors’ Deja Church glides in for a shot.
TECUMSEH – First, the good news: Nearly everyone on the Tecumseh girls basketball team has aspirations to play college basketball – and several of them at a very high level.
Now, the twist: There are only eight girls in the entire program.
Tecumseh head coach Kristy Zajac, starting her seventh season, is unfazed by the lack of numbers. Tecumseh will field just a varsity team this season but should contend for a Southeastern Conference White championship and pursue a deep playoff run as well.
“This is a great group of girls,” Zajac said. “At least six or seven of them want to play college basketball. The basketball IQ is so much higher than we have had in the past. We’ve never had a full team of basketball-first kids.”
Zajac said that dynamic has changed practices and the approach on the court.
“We do a lot more high-level skill stuff and high-level thinking,” she said. “We do more read-and-react stuff where they have to play on the fly, which makes us harder to scout. We want to try and give the kids a chance to use that basketball IQ and make opportunities for themselves on the floor so they can score without having to run a set play.”
The list of college prospects starts with her daughter, 6-foot-2 junior Alli Zajac. She holds about 15 Division I offers, and the list seems to grow daily.
She’s been receiving recruiting attention since before she played a game in high school. As a freshman, she was the Lenawee County Player of the Year and has been all-state both of her first two seasons. Last winter, she scored 433 points as Tecumseh went 20-5.
Her sister, Addi Zajac, hasn’t played a varsity game yet but has received a lot of attention as well as a college prospect after several great years of travel ball. She’s 6-foot and a true center.
“She wears a size 14 shoe,” Zajac said. “We are hoping next year she is 6-3 or 6-4. She has such a strong body; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone that strong at her age. She can push people around.”
The sisters are very different types of players. They also are extremely competitive, as witnessed when they play 1-on-1 at home.
“It usually ends in a fistfight,” Zajac said. “They are both very competitive.”
The team is loaded with more talent than just the Zajac sisters.
Sophomore Makayla Schlorf made 28 3-pointers last season, and sophomore Chloe Bollinger made 26. Junior Ashlyn Moorhead averaged just under double figures in scoring and averaged 3.7 assists a game last year. Junior Lauren Kilbarger also is back from last season and joined by newcomers Faith Wiedyk, a junior, sophomore Sophia Torres and freshman Amaria Brown.
Maddie VanBlack is another travel ball veteran but is out this season due to tearing an ACL.
Tecumseh athletic director Jon Zajac – Kristy’s husband – said it is disappointing Tecumseh won’t field a junior varsity team this year. He said kids playing travel ball in other sports, along with the youth of the current team, are factors.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “Hopefully this is the only year for that.”
Kristy (Maska) Zajac grew up near Tecumseh in Britton, played four years on the varsity and scored more than 1,800 career points under coach Bart Bartels, now an assistant on her staff. She played at Eastern Michigan University, where she was one of the top scorers in school history. Jon Zajac, played at EMU and professionally overseas.
The entire family is crazy about basketball. In addition to Alli and Addi, son Ryder played four years at Tecumseh before heading off to college to play football, and the youngest in the family, Avery, is a budding star in her own right.
“There were a few travel games this year where my team was short on numbers and Avery got to play with Addi and Alli,” Kristy Zajac said. “That was cool to see. She held her own. She won’t get to play with Alli in high school (Avery is in seventh grade), but she’ll get two years with Addi. I got to play with my sister, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
Jon Zajac stops by practice now and then to coach as well. He and Kristy coach Avery’s travel team.
“He is a great person to have as part of the program,” Kristy Zajac said of her husband. “Anytime I can get him to help with the post players and with the girls is great. He’s a huge help.”
The family often schedules trips around basketball and is seemingly always pulled in multiple directions as the three girls compete at various levels.
“It’s pretty much basketball all day, every day,” Zajac said. “It’s fun to see how the kids enjoy it and love the game.”
Tecumseh, which has won a combined 39 games over the past two seasons, has loaded up its schedule, playing a collection of nonconference teams that made deep tournament runs and won conference championships last season. Tecumseh plays in the Icebreaker event at Ypsilanti Arbor Prep against Detroit Country Day on Saturday and also faces Temperance-Bedford (23-1 last season), reigning Division 3 runner-up Blissfield and Grand Blanc.
Without a senior on the team and no JV squad, Tecumseh will play essentially this group for the next 50 or more games. It’s a two-year window with virtually the same team.
“We’re doing what we can to win this year,” Zajac said. “We want this year to be super successful. We are just taking it one game at a time and going from there. We want to keep building and getting better every day, every game. Hopefully by the end of next year, we’ll be where we need to be.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Tecumseh’s Alli Zajac makes her move toward the lane last season against Adrian. (Middle) Kristy Zajac coaches her team, which finished 20-5 in 2022-23. (Photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne/Adrian Daily Telegram.)