By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Muskegon Heights Academy has more basketball trophies than most high schools could ever dream of, including quite a few for state championships.

So it’s hard to believe that the modern-day Tigers could accomplish anything that their predecessors did not.

But it happened on Friday night.

The Tigers muscled their way past Muskegon Catholic 57-44 on Friday in the Crusaders’ home gym to win the first Class D district championship in school history.

Muskegon Heights has been Class A, B and C over the years, but this is the school’s first season in Class D. A lot of area fans have been expecting the Tigers to be quite successful at that level, and so far the results are good.

Kieshon Watson controls in the lane against the MCC defense. Photo/Michael Banka

“My nerves have been in better shape,” said Muskegon Heights Coach Del Stewart, whose team won its third consecutive district title. “The Muskegon Catholic Crusaders played an excellent basketball game. We’re very excited and proud to have the opportunity to win it. It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”

The championship is extra special for a Heights team that has not had its best season. After winning a share of the Lakes 8 Conference title last year, and advancing to the Class C regional finals, the Tigers put four new starters on the court this winter and struggled to an 8-11 regular-season record.

But the state tournament is a brand new season, and Muskegon Heights is 2-0. They now move on to play in the Class D regional semifinals on Monday.

Stewart said the Tigers will not be overconfident as they look ahead.

“I think we’ve had a lot of high expectations of what we could in D, but I know that we’re rebuilding,” the coach said. “You can’t teach experience. I have five or six guys out there who have never played tournament basketball before.”

The Tigers had their hands full early against the Crusaders, who beat them once in Lakes 8 action during the regular season.

Muskegon Heights led 15-12 after one quarter and 32-25 at halftime, but also struggled at times, missing numerous easy layups and 7 of 8 free throw attempts in the first half.

MCC took the lead for a moment, 21-20, midway through the second quarter, when Seth Arends sank three free throws after being fouled beyond the arc.

Daquan Walker fins the put back for Muskegon Heights. Photo/Michael Banka

But Muskegon Heights ended the first half on a 12-4 run, sparked by three straight transition layups by Kieshon Watson.

Sophomore Jared Dugener scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the first half for MCC.

The Tigers, who slowed the Crusaders with a stifling pressure defense and forced a lot of turnovers throughout the contest, outscored MCC 12-6 the third quarter and led 44-31 at the third buzzer.

The teams each scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers walked away with the trophy.

But Muskegon Heights never really delivered the knockout blow that they seemed poised to deliver at several different points of the second half.

MCC clawed back to within seven points, 49-42, with just under two minutes left in the game, before the Tigers sealed things up with an 8-2 run down the stretch.

The Tigers missed 11 of 15 shots from the floor in the third quarter and 8 of 12 in the fourth. Stewart said the performance will have to improve as his team moves on in the tournament.

“Not understanding how to manage the ballgame is one of our achilles heels,” Stewart said. “I attribute that to inexperience. We have kids who haven’t been in that moment, and we’re still working on trying to keep them focused.

“We’re going to swing for the fence with our effort, but they’re going to have to grow up fast. We’re hoping it happens. We hope the guys understand after tonight that they have to be more solid and have to listen more closely.”

Watson finished with 18 points for Muskegon Heights while Daquan Walker added 14 and Elijah Moore scored 12.

Peter Bartolameolli scored 11 points for Muskegon Catholic.