By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Since Muskegon girls basketball coach Rodney Walker came to the program five years ago, the team’s stated goal has been the same every season – to go all the way and win a state championship.
Of course the Big Red girls have yet to accomplish that goal, but they’ve been improving and inching closer. They thought they had a real shot last year, when they made it all the way to the state quarterfinals before losing 63-45 to East Lansing.
Instead of crumbling in disappointment over that loss, the Muskegon girls returned even more determined this season, and have earned a spot in the Division 1 state Final Four.
Muskegon, 21-4 on the season, will face Southfield Arts and Technology in the state semifinals on Friday at 2 p.m. at Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.
The winner will face the survivor of the other semifinal, between Saginaw Heritage (23-2) and Wayne Memorial (24-2), in the state championship game on Saturday at 12:15 p.m.
The Big Reds earned their Final Four berth with an impressive run in the tournament over the last few weeks, with victories over Grand Haven, Grand Rapids Union and Reeths-Puffer in districts, East Kentwood and Hudsonville in regionals, and Tuesday’s thrilling 53-51 victory over DeWitt in the state quarterfinals.
What they’ve already accomplished will go into the school record book. The team has now advanced farther in the state tournament than any other Muskegon girls basketball squad in history.
But the players are not satisfied with that, according to their coach. After falling short last season, they are completely focused on getting it done and achieving their goal this time around.
“When I was in practice yesterday, I really noticed how much they understand the moment they are in,” said Walker, 49, who coached for eight years at Orchard View before coming to Muskegon, and is making his first appearance as a coach in the state Final Four. “The focus I saw was something totally different.
“They are seizing this moment because they want to win the big one. They are definitely not satisfied yet. They very much want to win the big one and the state championship.”
The team’s consistent improvement has required a lot of work, according to Walker, starting with the development of strong fundamental skills.
He gives a lot of credit for that to Chauncey Williams, a longtime assistant coach, who has spent countless hours in the gym with the players, particularly in the summer months, making sure they are fundamentally sound.
Williams was in a car accident last summer, and was not able to do as much of that before this season, but the lessons he taught were already in place, and have really paid off this season, Walker said.
“He’s been doing that over the last five years,” Walker said. “He looks at our plays, develops drills, watches the players closely, and helps develop the culture. His job is developing the talent, and mine is developing the game plan.”
The steady improvement can also be traced to hard, disciplined practices, where the focus has been on running an effective half-court offense that can function against the toughest of defenses, and playing Muskegon’s trademark aggressive defense, which often trips opponents up with full-court pressure, or makes it tough for them to get to the basket in half-court situations.
“We spend a lot of time on our half-court offense,” the coach said. “Sometimes (the players) get mad, because they would like to get out there and run, but a lot of teams want to play zone on us, and in tough games we’ve been able to get what we want from those tough possessions. That’s because of the focus in practice.
“Defense is our focus at the start of every year. We make sure we are a defensive team before we are an offensive team. If you can play good defense, it limits the offensive things you need to do. The girls own it. They love playing defense.”
There was also the necessity to unite as a team, after adding several transfer players to the roster this season. That took some time, but the Big Reds are obviously now one very solid unit, in the way they play the game and relate to each other.
“It took some time for that to happen,” Walker said about the team chemistry. “We had some players transfer in, and they had to blend with the players who have been in our program for four year. They had to learn each other’s games. It was never a problem as far as selfishness, just an adjustment as far as learning each other’s style of play.
“Now they have gelled at the right time, and they’re doing everything they can as a collective group to win every game. They have a sisterhood, a bond that will never break.”
Of course the team’s biggest asset is senior guard Alyza Winston, who finished fourth in the balloting for the coveted statewide Miss Basketball award, and is arguably the most dynamic offensive girls player in Michigan.
Winston started the tournament rather quietly, being held to 11, 13 and 16 points in Muskegon’s three victories in districts. But since then she’s been on fire, scoring 34 points in the regional opener against East Kentwood, 28 in the regional final against Hudsonville, and 27 in Tuesday’s semifinal victory over DeWitt.
Winston really came through against DeWitt, leading the Big Reds to a comeback win by scoring 19 of her 27 points in the second half, including nine in the pivotal fourth quarter.
She capped things off by scoring the winning layup with four seconds left in the game.
The Big Reds also have that essential ingredient that all championship teams require – skilled role players who are willing to accept their specific assignments and sacrifice for the good of the team.
Walker offers senior Brionne Crews as an example. She was a starter last season, and has been coming off the bench in 2018-19. But that hasn’t stopped her from coming into games and playing outstanding defense when the team really needs it, according to the coach.
“Crews is a great defender, and she accepts her role,” Walker said. “A lot of times players like that go unnoticed. They won’t even be on other team’s scouting reports, then they go into games and do a great job.”
Sometimes Muskegon’s role players have stepped up offensively in tense situations, when Winston is not scoring as much. A prime example came in the district tournament opener against Grand Haven, a very tough team that gave the Big Reds all they could handle.
Brianna Alexander, a 5-foot-1 guard, led the team with 18 points in that game, while forward Diynasti Dowell contributed 16 points, including three triples.
Walker says his regular rotation goes eight players deep, and it doesn’t necessarily stop there.
“I have other skilled girls on the bench, if push comes to shove, who can go in and do a good job for us,” he said.
All of the factors listed above have given the Big Reds a well-rounded, confident team that wins a lot of games by a lot of points, but also knows how to pull out tight victories, like the district wins over Grand Haven and Reeths-Puffer, and the two-point comeback win over DeWitt.
Now the coaches and players are ready to go compete this weekend for the prize that’s been at the top of their list all along – a state championship trophy.
“It’s exciting for the entire community and our school community,” Walker said. “We just hope to seize the moment and be the last team standing when it’s over.”