By Ron Rop
EAST LANSING — If it weren’t for stellar guard play throughout the season, the Muskegon Big Reds’ season would have ended long before now.
There may not have been an OK-Green title, a district or regional championship and certainly not a trip to the Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State University.
On Friday, those three senior guards, and captains, put the Big Reds on their collective shoulders and led the way to a 65-42 victory over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the Division 1 semifinal game.
What Friday’s outcome means is that Coach Keith Guy and his Big Reds play again Saturday with a state title at stake. The Big Reds will take on Detroit Cass Tech, which defeated Grand Blanc 62-56 in the first semifinal game of the day.
Saturday’s game begins at 12:15 p.m.
The “Big 3” – Anthony Sydnor, David Day III and Jordan Briggs – not only were composed, but provided the offense and the defense that sparked Muskegon (26-2) to its ninth straight victory and first appearance in the state finals since 2014.
“It (our success) has a lot to do with our senior guards,” Guy said. “They’ve been through a lot of ups and downs and there is nothing in the game of basketball that these guys have not seen. The experience they’ve gained over the last 3 years helped us come out and play the way we play. They play loose … it’s not good to play tight in these situations.”
Briggs led the way with 19 points, Day III had 16 and Sydnor, who was the main man defending Trey McKenney, had 11 points.
McKenney, who is ranked among the top sophomores in the nation by ESPN, averages 25 points per game. While he was able to score 20 points, it was obvious that Sydnor, and others, put the clamps on him defensively. That in-your-face defense frustrated the 6-5 guard/forward into forcing some shots, and at times, trying to do too much to give his team a lift.
“We are committed to defense,” Guy said. “We try to make everything tough. If we were going to get beat tonight it was because Trey (McKenney) or one of their players had an unbelievable night and we know that Trey can do that.
“We wanted him to earn every inch of the floor,” Guy said. “We did not want to react to any tough shots that he made. If he came out with 30 (points) we wanted him to take 30 shots to get it.”
While Sydnor drew the main assignment in defending McKenney, he did get some help when McKenney caught the ball and looked to make his move.
“At times, it was hard,” Sydnor said of defending McKenney. “But, I just take pride in my defense and every shot that he made … I didn’t react to it. I just kept going and going and my teammates helped me, they helped me a lot.
“In practice I started out guarding Vern Nash,” said Briggs, in reference to a former Big Red and now star for the Muskegon Community College men’s basketball team. “He gave me a tough challenge in practice and it just led into the game. I just got up into him (McKenney) every shot he took. He was getting frustrated, but he is a great player. He made some great shots and I just respect his game.”
Muskegon got off to a strong start in the opening quarter and any big-stage jitters were nowhere to be found in Guy’s team.
“I was a little worried about us being tight,” Guy said. “We were loose.”
The Big Reds raced out to a 15-4 lead in the game’s first 5 1/2 minutes on the strength of a trio of 3-pointers by Day (2) and Sydnor. Muskegon led 15-6 after the first quarter. McKenney had all six points for the Eaglets.
The lead continued to grow early in the second quarter and reached 13 near the midpoint of the quarter when Elija Langston hit one of two free throws for a 22-9 lead.
After Sharod Barnes canned a 3-pointer to pull Orchard Lake to within eight, Muskegon junior Terrance Davis ignited the Big Red followers with a two-handed jam with 2:40 remaining.
Muskegon led 28-20 after one half. Day had 12 first-half points in a half that saw the Big Reds commit just two turnovers.
The Eaglets cut their deficit to 28-21 in the early minutes of the third quarter, but another Big Red surge pushed the advantage to 39-27 after three quarters. In those final minutes of the quarter, freshman James Martin nailed a 3-pointer and Briggs scored a two-pointer.
Orchard Lake’s final push came after a couple Big Red turnovers and a three-point play by Barnes. That left Muskegon owning a 49-40 lead with 3:30 remaining. Stanley Cunningham missed a pair of free throws for Muskegon, but on the next trip down the floor, he went up high and tipped in a missed shot.
“Coach told us in the huddle they were going to have their runs and we were going to have ours,” Day said. “When they had theirs, we didn’t get rattled and just kept playing our game.”
From there, Muskegon made its last 12 free throws to push its advantage north of 20 points. Briggs added seven rebounds and five assists to his 19-point performance.
Besides 20 points, McKenney had 10 rebounds. Barnes also reached double figures with 13 points.
“I felt like we were ready to go,” said Briggs of his team’s fast start on the big stage. “We’ve played in games like this with big crowds the whole season.”
And, for Day, it’s been a storybook season playing alongside Sydnor and Briggs.
“We came up together and want to finish on top,” Day said. “Like Coach said, we’ve seen everything with the presses and all the zones, the man coverages. We just want to come out on the big stage and not be rattled.”
And now the attention turns to Cass Tech with a championship trophy at stake with their fast pace of play.
“They are going to be a tough challenge,” Guy said. “They deserve to be here. They are well coached and use a trapping style. They defend every inch of the floor.”