East Lansing — Powers North Central was looking to repeat as state champs in its Class D final on Saturday, but Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes had some extra motivation.
Waterford Lakes was looking to avoid the same fate as last year, when it lost in the semifinals to Morenci. The extra motivation was evident. Lakes' players dove for loose balls, rushed to their man quicker, and left it all out on the floor in the biggest game of their lives.
But the Powers North Central boys were stronger, taller, and more talented. From the opening tip, they played and looked like a college team to win, 59-48, for its second straight Class D championship. Powers fought off a strong comeback from the Lakers that saw an 18-point lead shrink to four before Powers pulled away.
“It’s humbling. These players worked really hard to get back,” Powers coach Adam Mercier said. “They kept things in perspective and remained focused throughout the entire season, despite the high expectations.
“When the ball gets tipped up, these kids know it’s going to be five-on-five, and they always play team offense and team defense. When this team does that, and remains focused, they can beat anybody.”
Junior Jason Whitens, the Associated Press Class D Player of the Year, failed to score until two minutes left in the second quarter. Whitens then flipped a switch in his game, and took over those two minutes by scoring eight quick points, including a pull up 3-pointer at the top of the key just three seconds before the buzzer.
“It’s a great feeling," Whitens said. "Last year, our seniors went out with a bang and this year they went out with a bang."
“It means a lot to reach this goal because we worked so hard for this. We heard the expectations all year, but we blocked everything out and got it done.”
Powers North Central went on a huge 13-1 run to open the third quarter, holding a 40-22 lead halfway through the third. Waterford fought back, however, closing the quarter on an 11-0 run of its own.
Waterford kept it going in the fourth, getting to within four with 5:30 left, but a five-point swing for Powers North Central proved to be the difference-maker and Waterford could not recover.
“A five-point swing is a killer at any time, but here it went from keeping them nervous to letting them breathe,” Waterford coach Paul Robak said. “That hurt, it was definitely the biggest turning point. If we got it down to one or two points, then we could have maybe gotten it done.
“We knew coming into it that this wasn’t a team that we could beat in a best of seven series. We tried to beat them by forcing them to play a style that they were not as comfortable with. We did some of the things we thought were going to be key, but at the end of the day they were better than us.”
Senior guard Andrew Kline was at the heart of the comeback for Waterford Lakes, scoring 14 in the second half and finishing with 22. Whitens offset the Waterford Lakes' surge with 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting (3-of-5 on 3 pointers).
Powers (28-0) took command of the game early. Whitens and junior guard Dawson Bilski were both threats from 3-point range, sinking seven behind the arc combined. Waterford (22-5) shot just 11.8 percent from 3-point range, going 2-for-17.
Michael Epps is a freelance writer