Local Sports Journal

Sooner or later, the Muskegon Heights Tigers had to get a serious challenge in the Class C state basketball tournament.

They blew through two regional games, beating Kalamazoo Hackett and New Buffalo last week by a combined  69 points. Some fans probably started to wonder if anyone would give them a game.

Then the Tigers met Hillsdale in Tuesday’s state quarterfinals and got the scare of their lives.

Hillsdale’s Josef Phillips launched a desperation shot from beyond center court in the last second of the game, and came remarkably close to stealing a win for his team. But.the ball hit the front of the rim and bounced away, preserving a thrilling 59-57 victory for Muskegon Heights at Vicksburg High School.

The Tigers advance to the Class C state semifinals at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center. They will meet Pewamo-Westphalia Thursday at 1 p.m., with the winner earning a berth in Saturday’s state championship game.

“Oh my gosh, what a game,” said Muskegon Heights coach Del Stewart, whose team improved to 21-3 on the season. “(Phillips) just took a pivot and heaved it. I was thinking to myself ‘not like this.’ Everybody just froze. It took a second or two for the celebration to start. We just looked at each other and said ‘that was close.’

“It feels great just to know we’re in the final four in our division. Getting the opportunity to play at the Breslin Center is going to be an experience that none of us will ever forget.”

After the easy wins in regionals, Stewart said it was a struggle in practice to convince his players that the competition would intensify. But now that they’ve been pushed to the brink, the coach thinks the Tigers will be ready for any sort of Final Four challenge.

“When you come off a game like this there’s going to be some positive carryover,” he said. “We handled the regional games pretty well. But there were times when we weren’t practicing very well, and I had to make them understand that these aren’t going to be the same teams. They had to know they were not going to get away with playing the way they were.”

The Tigers learned that quickly against Hillsdale. The game was close from start to finish, with the Tigers grabbing a 17-12 lead after one quarter, 27-24 at halftime and 37-34 at the third buzzer.

“We came out firing and so did they – both teams came out to win,” Stewart said. “I don’t think either team led by more than three points for most of the game.”

Muskegon Heights’ leading scorers – Aaron Sydnor and Eddie Tornes – were both whistled for two fouls in the first quarter, forcing the Tigers to back off on their normally aggressive full court press defense and allow Hillsdale to run its effective half court offense.

But Stewart said his team focused on taking away the perimeter shot, while giving away some two-pointers in the paint. That strategy held Hillsdale to one triple in the game.

“We did a very good job playing a very good half court team and coming out on top,” the coach said.

The Tigers opened up a six-point lead with a 9-0 run in the fourth quarter, which was sparked by three straight steals. Sydnor led off the surge with a three-point bucket, then Antonio Jones added a steal and a layup and Tornes tossed in another  basket.’

Stewart said the steals came when he finally unleashed the full-court press, despite the earlier foul concerns.

“In the fourth quarter we stretched out the defense a little more,” he said. “Nobody was pulling away. That run put us up by six with about three minutes left.”

But Hillsdale kept creeping back and pulled within a point in the final seconds on a basket by Tyler Lash.

Hillsdale fouled Jones almost immediately after the bucket, sending Muskegon Heights to the line with a 1.7 seconds left on the clock. Jones missed the first free throw and hit the second, putting the Tigers up by two.

Hillsdale inbounded the ball and Phillips just missed his Hail Mary shot, leaving the Tigers stunned, but happy.

“I was thinking about telling Jones to miss both free throws,” Stewart said. “They might have gotten the rebound on the second, but there were only 1.7 seconds left and they didn’t have a clear shot. But I didn’t want to take the chance of having it look like he was missing on purpose, which would be an infraction, so I just said, what the heck, it he makes them, he makes them, if he misses, he misses.”

Sydnor paced Muskegon Heights with a game-high 24 points. Tornes and Jones added 13 and 12 points, respectively, for the winners.

Patrick Brews led Hillsdale (24-2) with 15 points while Andrew Wilcox added 14.