Prep Insider: Western already a contender without transfers

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit Western was supposed to be a legitimate contender for the state championship this season … after transfers Josh McFolley and Gerald Blackshear became eligible to play in late January.

But Western already has matched its win total from a year ago without the 6-foot-1 McFolley and 6-8 Blackshear — both transfers from Mount Clemens who will play at Detroit next year — and now an already great team will be the front-runner to win the Class A state title once they get on the floor Jan. 20 at Detroit King.

Western (6-0) is the best team in the state, defeating preseason No. 2 Saginaw Arthur Hill and Texas-bound guard Eric Davis, 69-57, last month, No. 8 Romulus, 57-47, and defending PSL champion Pershing, 81-59, last week.

Fourth-year coach Derrick McDowell, who had tremendous success at Detroit Redford more than a decade ago, has an all-stater in 5-9, 150-pound junior Brailen Neely, who is averaging 20.2 points. Western has won each of its games by double figures and has outscored its opponents by an average of 20 points.

Neely can get to the basket and is an outstanding 3-point shooter. He scored 23 in the win over Arthur Hill, making 10 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter. He had 17 points in the win over Romulus and 19 against Pershing.

"We just said this year is pretty much all about revenge," Neely said. "Last year, everybody had high expectations for us and we let them down. We had no answers last year. This year, we have our heads on straight. We've been playing varsity since our freshman year so everybody's more mature and now we're ready to go.

"My job is to just get everybody involved, be a leader and make sure we don't get discouraged when teams make runs."

So is Neely shocked Western is 6-0 with a few impressive victories already in the books?

"No, not really," Neely said. "People thought we'd have to wait for Josh and Gerald, the transfers, and no discredit to them, they're great players, but we've been together since freshman year and we've grown to play at this level.

"All we want is to win so we're not worrying about players not playing right now. And, we know the rotation when they come on board, too, because it's already set up since they've been practicing with us. They're going to be fun to play with. They're competitive. Gerald's full of energy and Josh can shoot from anywhere.

"This team is definitely capable of winning a state championship. And, we feel if we don't win a state championship, this season will be a failure."

Western has received strong contributions from guards Armani Tinsley and Karim Murray. Tinsley scored 14 in a season-opening win over Chicago Marshall and Murray scored 20 in the win over Romulus.

Neely scored 27 Friday in a 59-31 win over PSL runner-up Southeastern. He helped rally Western back from an early deficit with his ability to get to the rim, then helped his team get some breathing room with some impressive 3-point shooting.

Southeastern scored the game's first five points, then led 7-2 before Neely scored six points near the end of the quarter, all on layups, for an 11-7 lead. After increasing the lead to 25-18 at halftime, Neely went to work from the perimeter, making four 3-pointers in the first 31/2 minutes of the second half for a 39-21 cushion.

"We knew they were going to sit in a zone and Brailen can shoot and the same thing when Josh becomes eligible," said McDowell. "We may struggle for a little bit at the beginning of the game until we get adjusted to the zone, but eventually we'll make shots."

McDowell is looking forward to having the added size inside of Blackshear.

"Gerald's going to bring that presence down low where they can't sit on the perimeter. He's going to bring the shot-blocking, the energy and the attitude so I'm looking for him to really lift us up," McDowell said. "Even if they didn't come over here, I was expecting us to be just as good. Brailen and the other guys have been starting since they were freshmen. They are experienced now. Expectations were so high last year and we lost close games in our first two league games, one in overtime and the other by two points, and the confidence started to sink.

"This season, before the game against Arthur Hill I told them this game will put us on the map and get us the recognition we deserve, and once we beat Arthur Hill I knew our confidence was where it needed to be."

McDowell knows his team is capable of winning a state title.

"For sure," he said. "It's got everything. It's got depth. It's got size. You have guards and you have ball skills at the guard spots and you can play big, too."

Blackshear and McFolley each has a 3.0 grade-point average with Blackshear planning on studying criminal justice at Detroit while McFolley eyes a future in journalism, hoping one day to become a sports broadcaster.

"We decided to come here because we felt like it was a great opportunity for school and a great opportunity to come and help get a PSL and state championship," McFolley said. "This is a great academic school with 40-some kids going to the University of Michigan last year."

"It's been killing me," said Blackshear of sitting on the bench and watching. "I just want to get on the floor so bad that it's crazy. I'm going to bring some energy to this team because sometimes we start out slow. I'm going to stop that from happening and also just do my best on defense and add a couple of points on the board. I feel we're going to be great."

Romulus makes statement

Romulus coach Jarret Smith wants to make sure his team is prepared to make a long postseason run, a reason he has put together one of the toughest schedules in the state.

Romulus (5-2) has come out on the short end of a couple of games this season, but it has a pair of statement wins, too, defeating defending Class B state champion Milan (70-36) last month and avenging last year's state quarterfinal loss to U-D Jesuit last Tuesday with a 56-53 victory.

Romulus will play defending Class A state champion Muskegon — which suffered a 58-57 loss to East Kentwood Dec. 30 to end its 31-game winning streak — Saturday (5:30 p.m.) at Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills.

"It doesn't benefit you to play teams you blow out," said Smith. "You have to play the toughest teams to get good, to get better and that's what we try to do."

Smith was pleased with his team's defense against U-D.

"It was a good win for us and we got some stops in a tough, grind-it-out type of game," Smith said. "Defensively, we responded well and forced them to take some tough shots. We were locked in and paid attention to detail.

"We knew we had to slow down a great player in Cassius Winston. He still scored 35, but we forced him to take some uncomfortable shots and he made some tough shots, too."

Kent State-bound Jaylin Walker scored 19 against Jesuit and is averaging 16 points. Rio Washington, a 6-7, 280-pound center, had 12 points and eight rebounds and junior DeAngelo Hansbro did a good job of running the offense.

West Bloomfield 6-0 again

West Bloomfield is 6-0 for the second straight year, but will the Lakers be able to keep the streak rolling after struggling during the second half last season?

West Bloomfield coach Jeremy Denha thinks his team's success will continue, a far cry from last year's 12-9 season which ended with a first-round district loss.

"This team is more experienced," Denha said. "It's a close-knit group and has a real playmaker in Trishton Jackson, who has put himself on the map and is a reason we'll be in games this year. He made 60 percent of his threes in the first five games and is shooting near 60 percent from the field, as well."

West Bloomfield earned a 64-61 overtime win over Royal Oak Friday. Jackson, a 6-2 junior point guard, scored 25 and 6-6 senior Zach Allread had 13 points and 12 rebounds.

Jackson is averaging 29 points; Allread, a Northwood commit, 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Boys-girls doubleheader

Birmingham Marian will be the site of a Catholic League girls-boys doubleheader Friday.

Defending Class A state champion and unbeaten Marian will play Farmington Hills Mercy at 6, followed by Birmingham Brother Rice versus Detroit Catholic Central.

Mercy defeated Marian in the Catholic League title game last year, 55-54, with Marian avenging the loss in the state semifinals at the Breslin Center, 67-55.

Top performer

Erika Davenport, Clarkston

The 6-foot Marquette-bound Miss Basketball-caliber player had 30 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in a 48-35 victory over OAA rival Lake Orion Thursday, helping the Wolves to a 32-12 second-half scoring advantage.

By the numbers

2,000 -- Career points by Taylor Richards of Fruitport Calvary Christian, making her the 28th girls basketball player to reach the milestone. She will play at Cornerstone University.

35 -- Points scored by U-D Jesuit junior point guard Cassius Winston in a 56-53 loss to Romulus Tuesday.

9 -- Deficit West Bloomfield battled back from Friday in its 64-61 overtime win over Royal Oak to remain unbeaten at 6-0.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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