By Tom Westerholm
On Tuesday, with a 59-43 victory over East Lansing, they punched their ticket to the season’s final venue. The Big Reds are headed to the Breslin Center for the state semifinals.
They have no intention of being done just yet.
“It don’t end here,” senior guard Anthony Sydnor III said.
Entering Tuesday’s game, Muskegon had a specific goal: Keep East Lansing star Cameron Hutson – son of former Michigan State forward and NCAA champion Andre Hutson – from scoring double digits. They achieved that goal, holding the 6-foot-5 sophomore to just nine.
Sydnor earned the primary assignment on Hutson and spent most of the first half denying him from getting the ball.
“Our coach always gives me the biggest defensive assignment, and I take that,” Sydnor said. “I take it on. Anything I have to do to win, I’ll do.”
Offensively, however, the Big Reds scuffled a bit in the first quarter. After senior guard Jordan Briggs buried a pick-and-roll triple for Muskegon’s first field goal, the Trojans rattled off six straight points, including four straight by senior forward Evan Boyd. Muskegon forward Stanley Cunningham ripped down an offensive rebound and converted an and-one late in the quarter, but Muskegon trailed 14-12 after one.
Importantly, however, Hutson picked up his first foul with just over a minute remaining in the quarter. Midway through the second, M’Khi Guy stepped in front of Hutson and drew a charge for his second – two fouls that would come back to haunt the Trojans later.
East Lansing took a three-point lead with 3:14 remaining in the half after Boyd buried a triple. Justin Watson, however, answered with a 3-pointer on the other end, and Muskegon ended the half on an 8-2 run to take a 27-24 lead into the break.
“I told our guys, ‘We were up three against Hudsonville [in the regional finals] at halftime. Calm down and play our game,’” Muskegon coach Keith Guy said.
After a basket by Cunningham to open the half, however, the Big Reds gave up a 7-0 run, once again sparked by Boyd, who scored a game-high 18 points.
But Boyd woke Muskegon up with three minutes remaining in the third. After he swatted away a layup attempt by Briggs in transition, Boyd barked something the officials deemed excessive — according to Briggs postgame, it was “give me that” – and the senior picked up a technical.
Briggs called Boyd “his guy” after the game.
Still: “I’m not really one to start talking, but if someone talks, I can be the one to finish it if I have to,” Briggs said. “That did kind of get me going.”
Two minutes later, Briggs drilled his third three of the game, putting Muskegon up 35-33. The Big Reds wouldn’t trail again. Watson converted a layup. Sydnor made two more free throws. At the start of the fourth, Briggs hit another three. By the time junior big man Terrance Davis threw down a two-handed dunk (and picked up a technical for pulling himself up on the rim), Muskegon’s run was 18-4 dating back to the middle of the third quarter, and the lead was 47-35.
Meanwhile, Hutson – who picked up a third foul in the third quarter – tacked on two more in the first two minutes of the fourth. East Lansing was forced to spend 5:52 of the period without its star, and while they hung tough and trimmed the lead as low as 47-41 with heavy pressure, the Big Reds closed the game strong and emptied their bench in the final 30 seconds.
Sydnor and Briggs finished with 13 points apiece, while senior guard David Day III scored seven. M’Khi Guy and Watson added five apiece.
Keith Guy – who challenged Watson in practice on Saturday to be more than a shooter – called the junior Muskegon’s “unsung hero” against East Lansing.
“He wasn’t out to just shoot the ball,” Guy said. “He did other things, and that’s what we’ve been harping on him about, is doing other things to help your team win, because your shot might not go in every night. What can you bring to the table if it’s not going in? And he bought into that.
“I’m proud of Justin. Justin is growing up. Justin is going to be a college basketball player.”
Watson, like his teammates, is thrilled to be headed to the Breslin Center.
“Me and brother, we always talked about ‘Man, we’re going to the [Breslin Center],” Watson said. “We always wanted to do that. And this? This is a great feeling. This is a dream come true.”
Muskegon will take on Orchard Lake St. Mary’s – with star guard Trey McKenney, who is ranked No. 18 on ESPN’s recruiting rankings in the sophomore class – in the state semifinals on Friday at 2 p.m.
“We worked so hard in the summer – every day we’ve done is starting to pay off,” Sydnor said. “But we’re not done yet. We have two more.”