By Nate Thompson
The way the Big Reds performed before a standing-room-only crowd at Caledonia High School – leading start-to-finish against the 22-2 Eagles – it was no upset.
“Our coach told us that we were the underdogs, but that put more pressure on them,” said Muskegon senior Jacarius Scott, who led all scorers with 17 points and three steals. “He told us we just had to come out and play our game and that’s what we did.
“And we kind of knew we were already going to win.”
Muskegon advances to Wednesday’s regional championship game against a familiar foe – Hudsonville – who the Big Reds will meet in the regional round for the fourth straight year.The postseason rivals played in an epic four-overtime thriller last season with Muskegon getting the victory.
Against Grand Rapids Christian, the Big Reds had a swagger throughout the game, which overshadowed the hype of the Eagles’ highly-ranked juniors I – center Xavier Tillman and forward James Beck II – who both are potential Division 1 college recruits.
Muskegon neutralized the Eagles’ star power with a balanced and blazing offensive attack, and a physical brand of defense that made the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Tillman work for every step he took in the paint.
“We knew we had to be physical with them,” said Muskegon coach Keith Guy, whose squad improved to 20-3 overall. “The kids battled all night and they did a great job of taking away their tendencies. The guys stuck with the game plan.”
The biggest statement from Muskegon came on the offensive end. The Big Reds consistently beat the Eagles off the dribble in the first quarter, helping them build a commanding 19-8 lead. When Grand Rapids Christian switched to a zone defense in the second, the Big Reds relied on red-hot outside shooting to keep their opponents grounded.
Muskegon drained seven three-pointers during the contest, led by three from senior forward Terrion Hill-McKay, who also turned in an admirable defensive performance on Tillman.
The Eagles clawed back to trail 30-24 at the half, but Muskegon was getting it done with an entire cast of scorers. The Big Reds finished with five players scoring seven or more points.
“All season, that’s the way it’s been,” Guy said. “We’ve had a different guy step up every game. Last year we had the big names like DD (Deyonta Davis) and Hip Hop (Joeviair Kennedy), but we’ve got a lot of talented kids.
“It’s just a group of guys that people don’t know about, but they just get the job done.”
Grand Rapids Christian closed its deficit to 37-34 with 4:49 left in the third, but the Big Reds closed with a fury.
A sweet cross-over dribble and pull-up jumper from Michael Littlejohn, followed by a goaltending call on the Eagles, gave the Big Reds some relief, and they closed the quarter with some fireworks.
Scott fired up a straight-away three-pointer at the buzzer that banked in, giving Muskegon a 49-37 lead entering the fourth. Scott capped his stellar night with a steal and breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter that summed up the Big Reds’ energetic victory.
“I’d say the throwdown (was more exciting). That’s the first time I’ve done that in a game,” Scott said with a grin. “Actually, that gave me confidence to try it more often.
“We knew we wanted to get out and run,” he added. “We pushed it up every chance we got because we knew they were slower.”
The Eagles couldn’t muster a comeback because their outside shooting was cold and they were dreadful at the free throw line, connecting on just 12-of-25 attempts. That included a 1-of-8 showing at the charity stripe from Tillman, who still managed a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Point guard Duane Washington led the Eagles with 16 points, but he didn’t have an assist.
Hill-McKay totaled 12 points, and senior guard Linwood Lee added 11 points and three rebounds for the Big Reds. Littlejohn finished with nine points and junior Jermane Golidy contributed seven.
With the win, Guy said he hopes all the attention doesn’t shift to his squad, but there’s a key reason why the Big Reds are in position for another regional title.
“People have written us off all year because we didn’t have the big names, so to speak,” he said. “These kids took it personal. We have a program. Whether we win or lose the next game, we’ll still be right here. Our program is built to stay. We’re built for these types of moments.”