Kalamazoo — As the snow was falling outside of Anderson Arena Wednesday night, things were heating up for Albion College’s perimeter shooters, especially sophomore guard MJ Barnes, who was knocking down 3-pointer after 3-pointer in a 96-70 win over Kalamazoo College.
In a season that started out in tragedy — the death of sophomore guard Zachary Winston, the younger brother of Michigan State All-American guard Cassius Winston — Albion players have somehow regained their focus and are putting together a historic season while keeping his spirit alive.
Zachary Winston died when he was struck by a train in front of the school’s Dow Center in early November. Authorities said Winston intentionally stepped in front of the train.
The Britons won 12 straight to crack the Top 25 national rankings in Division III, then after suffering an upset loss at home Saturday to Alma, rebounded with a one-sided win at Kalamazoo to put themselves within a win of clinching their first MIAA regular-season championship in 15 years.
Albion players wear jerseys with decals honoring Winston with the initials “ZW” near the left shoulder. His No. 5 jersey is draped over a chair on the team’s bench.
“We have his jersey on the bench, over a chair, and I don’t know if we’re playing for someone, but I think we’re playing for who Zach was, and it’s really important to know who he was,” said Albion coach Jody May of Winston. “Zach was always a great teammate who played really hard all the time and did things the right way. He was a great student and he was a great person.
“I think if we can take away all those characteristics from him and play for who he was and try to get closer to that kind of person on and off the court, the successes will take care of themselves.
“When something like this happens, it’s just an unknown journey that you don’t know what the next day holds, and it’s constantly evolving. We probably have more good days than bad days now, but we still have some bad days.”
Albion (19-3, 10-1) swept the season series with MIAA perennial powers Calvin and Hope in the same season for the first time in May’s career, which includes 11 years as an assistant under Mike Turner and the last 12 as head coach of the program.
“I’ve been here 23 years, and we had off and on swept one of them, but never both,” May said. “(The MIAA) is getting more competitive, where one or two teams don’t just dominate anymore like they did in the past.”
Albion, which won the MIAA tournament last season, has a three-game lead over defending MIAA regular-season champion Trine and Calvin with three games remaining and could clinch the conference title with a win at Adrian Saturday.
“I’ve told them all along the easy part is getting to first place, the hardest part is staying there, because you’re always going to get everybody’s best shot, so it was big to get this win after losing (to Alma).”
The core of Albion’s team consists of 6-8 senior center Caden Ebeling, 6-5 junior forward Quinton Armstrong and 5-9 junior guard Jamezell Davis.
“And then we have a lot of really good other guys and you don’t know how to guard us,” May said. “Teams have to pick their poison a little bit. If you double (inside) then we have some shooters, and if you leave our post one-on-one they are going to score. So I think we’re hard to guard, and we’re young.”
Ebeling, who played his high school ball at Utica, is closing out his career in style, leading the Britons in scoring (17.6), rebounding (8.0) and shooting percentage (.643). Armstrong (13 points, 7.7 rebounds), Davis (16.5 points) and starting sophomore guard Cortez Garland (10.6) also average in double figures, with Barnes averaging 7.7 points off the bench.
“We just have a strong chemistry this year that we haven’t had before,” Ebeling said. “We do things together all the time, whether it’s eating in the cafeteria or hanging out after games. We have a tight connection with each other and everybody pushes each other to get better. Everybody’s out there not playing for themselves, but for the guy next to them.”
Evidence of Ebeling’s words was clear in the first half Wednesday night, when the Britons had great ball movement. Eight players scored in the first half as Albion took a 44-29 lead.
“Me and Q (Armstrong), we’re kind of like the backbone, we play from inside-out, so a lot of stuff revolves around us and making good decisions and getting other people open, and tonight they took us away, so the guards got things done,” Ebeling said.
Yes, Albion’s guards did get the job done. Ebeling (12 points, nine rebounds) and Armstrong (12 points, seven rebounds) still had solid games, but Barnes scored a game-high 25 points, making 7-of-11 3-pointers while Davis (Ypsilanti) and freshman Josh Palo (Howell) each scored 15, with Palo making all five of his long-range shots.
‘This team is special’
Albion College legend Milton Barnes was sitting on the bleachers in Anderson Arena, watching his youngest son have one of his best games in a Britons uniform.
Barnes, who was head coach at Eastern Michigan the last time the Eagles made the NCAA Tournament in 1998, was asked what his high game was at Albion.
“I scored 36 one game, didn’t have the 3-point line back then or I would have had 50,” said a smiling Barnes, who is now the head coach at Jackson High and also director of student success initiatives at Albion College. “We went to the (NCAA Division III) Final Four my junior year in ‘78, swept both Hope and Calvin my senior year.”
MJ Barnes, a 6-3 sophomore, said he doesn’t know much about his father’s career at Albion and feels no pressure.
MJ made 8-of-9 3-pointers in the first game against Kalamazoo this season when he scored 26 in a 109-94 win at Kresge Gymnasium in Albion Jan. 18.
“I was feeling good, got a good rhythm going,” said MJ of his impressive outing Wednesday night. “The way they guarded the post it allowed me to get open. I feel like if we keep pushing each other in practice we can make some noise in the national tournament.”
MJ took Winston’s death hard. They were roommates last season as the two made the transition to college life.
“It was a tough blow,” MJ said. “He was a great man, one of the most outgoing people I’ve ever met, only knew him for a year and a half, but I honestly felt like I knew him my whole life. Having that patch makes me feel like a piece of him is still with me.”
Added Ebeling: “It was a really tough experience, but it was easier to get through because we were doing it together, so we made sure to have each other’s back.
Ebeling said the patch he wears “means a lot to me. I like having it a lot because even though he’s not with us, he’s still with us. Every time I make a free throw I still point to it (the patch) because I know he’s watching over us every game.”
The Albion players have been supporting Zachary Winston’s brother, Khy Winston, who is a 6-4 freshman guard on the team.
“Khy is a big personality on the team,” MJ Barnes said. “He’s like a little brother to all of us and we look out for him.”
The Winston family is from Detroit — all three of the brothers played at U-D Jesuit — but Albion has become a second home for Khy.
“I came here because I felt like this was home, and this is home,” Khy said. “When I came back (in December, following Zachary’s death), everybody welcomed me with open arms and showed me extreme love, so it still felt like home.
“Basketball helps me when I get down, so it’s a great outlet for me. And this team is really special. This is my first year at the school and hopefully things keep going. We just have to keep playing, work on the little things every day and get better.”