East Lansing — Dan Fife jumped up and threw a fist in the air in celebration as the final buzzer sounded following Clarkston’s 75-69 victory over previously unbeaten Grand Rapids Christian Saturday afternoon at Breslin Center.
After 35 years as head coach of Clarkston’s basketball program, Fife earned the right to lift the Class A state championship trophy for the first time, and he held it in front of a crowd of 13,251 with multiple college coaches looking on, including Tom Izzo, John Beilein and Greg Kampe.
And, 6-foot junior guard Foster Loyer made sure Fife would be able to experience what it was like to be a champion, scoring 29 and setting the tempo with three 3-pointers during the final 2:45 of the opening quarter for a 20-12 lead.
Then, after Christian (27-1) — led by Michigan State-bound, 6-8, 260-pound Xavier Tillman — pulled within 55-48 after three quarters, Loyer made a jumper from the right corner, then a 15-footer to open a 61-48 cushion with 5:55 left.
“This whole season has been a great journey and for our teammates and myself to come out here and play well tonight, and ultimately to win this state championship, it not only means everything to us as players and us as a team and a family, but knowing we were able to get this done for Coach Fife because that’s what we’ve been dreaming about since we’ve started playing basketball here at Clarkston,” said Loyer, an MSU commit and son of former Pistons assistant John Loyer. “We’re loving life right now.”
Fife certainly was, pointing to the section of the crowd behind the basket after the game where his wife, sons and 10 grandchildren were sitting, smiling while acknowledging that he felt their presence during his finest hour in coaching.
“I’m proud of our kids,” Fife said in the post-game press conference. “We talked about their size and our size tonight before the game and how we needed to be able to get all the 50-50 balls and all the loose balls and you can’t just let up, no matter wherever you’re at, you have to be engaged and know where the ball’s at.”
Clarkston (27-1) shot 51.1 percent from the field, made 21 of 25 free throws compared to Christian’s 4 of 7, and turned the ball over just six times.
Clarkston beat GR Christian to win Fife's first state championship
Loyer & Co. certainly were glued to each and every one of Fife’s words, even while leading by 11 with just over a minute left when Loyer dove head-first while trying to get a hand on the ball during a breakaway layup by James Beck (Oakland). Beck, a 6-7 senior forward, made the layup, but was limited to eight points on 3-of-6 shooting.
“That’s who he is right there, diving for the ball against all odds, that’s the way Foster plays,” Fife said. “By him coming that way, he was a freshman starting for us on varsity so when the rest of the kids came in and they saw that, they kind of play as the leader does, follow his way and he’s created a huge atmosphere in our program with that type of effort all the time.”
Big things were expected from Loyer, but it was 6-9, 205-pound sophomore Taylor Currie who came in as the X-factor and made the difference.
Currie’s job was to defend Tillman, the Mr. Basketball runner-up. He made him earn every one of his 25 points and seven rebounds while piling up the stat sheet himself (16 points, 7-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds) to help Clarkston to a 26-21 rebounding advantage, 11-8 at the offensive end.
“Obviously we knew that he’s (Tillman) a great force in the paint and really my main focus going into the game was just trying to stay in front, knowing I had help in the back and that if I could force that pass over the top they could get a steal and when he got the ball try to stay straight up and avoid getting in foul trouble, and then keeping him off the glass because he’s a great offensive rebounder,” Currie said.
Foster Loyer on playing future MSU teammate Xavier Tillman and what it means to win state title
And, don’t forget senior guard C.J. Robinson (14 points, 4-of-5 shooting) and 6-4 senior forward Dylan Alderson (12 points).
Robinson made a 15-footer off a rebound after Tillman swatted away Loyer’s 3-point shot as time expired to end the half for a 34-29 lead.
Robinson then continued his strong play in the third quarter, scoring seven, including a 3-pointer, while also taking a charge on Beck, leading to a basket at the other end when Loyer, from the free-throw line, fired an over-the-shoulder pass inside to Currie for a 51-43 lead.
Loyer was the catalyst during a 14-4 first-quarter run when Clarkston made four 3-pointers to turn an 8-6 deficit into a 20-12 lead.
Loyer made a pair of 3-pointers from the top of the key during the run, then made a step-back 3-pointer from the right wing, followed by Alderson’s 3-pointer from the left wing with 2.5 seconds remaining.
GR Christian's Xavier Tillman on final high school game and heading to MSU
Tillman, who took just three shots in the 74-52 semifinal win over Romulus on Friday, made four inside baskets in the opening quarter and scored 10, making 5-of-6 shots in the first half to pull Christian within 34-29 at halftime.
Tillman and Christian failed to make their shots early in the fourth, with Tillman missing an inside shot and 6-3 junior guard Duane Washington a pair of 3-pointers after Washington made two long-range shots during the second quarter.
And Loyer kept making shots early in the fourth, first a jumper from the right corner, then a 15-footer before Currie’s two free throws for the 61-48 cushion.
“I’m disappointed that we lost the state championship game, but at the same time it’s like Coach (Mark Warners) said in the locker room before the game, ‘No regrets, give it everything you’ve got,’ and that’s exactly what I did so I can live with the results.”
And, Tillman knows he has to live with the results due to Loyer’s performance.
“He can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he can pass the ball, it’s kind of like pick your poison when it comes to Foster,” Tillman said. “When we tried to step up, he would drive by, give up a pump fake and get the foul and make two free throws. It was hard to stop him. We couldn’t really stop him and he’s going to be a great player for us later on when he comes to Michigan State because he’s just a poised player and he can score the ball and that’s what we need.”
Fife must be thrilled he has Loyer for one more year.