East Lansing — Elijah Baxter picked the perfect time to take over, helping Benton Harbor advance to the Class B championship game with a 60-49 victory over River Rouge Friday night at Breslin Center.
Baxter, a senior point guard, scored 17, making three 3-pointers during the final 2 minutes, 10 seconds of the third quarter to give Benton Harbor a 47-37 lead.
“He’s fearless, he’s been doing that all year for us, hit those same shots in the quarterfinals,” Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said.
Said Baxter: “I knew we had to stay focused. I just wanted to prove a point that we didn’t prove last year.”
Benton Harbor (26-1) proved it could dominate down the stretch in the semifinal after getting dominated by New Haven in the same game a year ago.
Benton Harbor wasn’t threatened in the fourth quarter, leading by 14 to earn its first championship game appearance since 2014, when it lost to Milan.
It was a semifinal showdown between two storied programs — River Rouge, which dominated Class B class from the mid-’50s to the early ‘70s, winning 12 state titles, against Benton Harbor, which played in five Class A title games from 1955-65, winning consecutive titles in 1964-65.
While Benton Harbor was supposed to be at Breslin, returning the bulk of its team from last season, the same can’t be said for River Rouge (23-2) which lost 10 players from its state semifinal team from a year ago, including four starters.
Still, River Rouge played with Benton Harbor — led by the 1-2 punch of 6-foot-6 Carlos Johnson (nine points, nine rebounds, six blocks), who has an offer from Oklahoma, and 6-4 senior Shawn Hopkins — until Baxter’s barrage of 3-pointers.
“It was a great achievement to make it here, but we didn’t come here to lose,” said River Rouge coach Mark White, who said he had one starter from last year’s team and seven juniors, three sophomores and a freshman on his roster.
“Benton Harbor is a really good team, tough matchups, that sophomore Johnson is a really tough player and we spent a lot of energy trying to contain him. We were able to keep him under what he usually does, but they have so many weapons, so many threats out there.
“You have to give those other guys credit, they stepped up. No. 5 (Hopkins) and No. 2 (Baxter), we didn’t have an answer for them. I also felt they rebounded better than teams we’ve seen. They created turnovers and I felt we could have done a better job of taking care of the ball. They were able to capitalize on those turnovers in transition.”
Hopkins (18 points, 13 rebounds) was dominant at both ends in the opening quarter, when he scored eight and had four rebounds, getting in the passing lanes for steals leading to transition baskets while also scoring off putbacks and blocking shots.
Hopkins was back at it defensively in the fourth quarter, getting another critical steal with 2:30 left after River Rouge pulled within 55-47, then blocking another shot less than a minute later.
Nigel Colvin scored 15 for River Rouge which also received 12 points from Donovan Freeman.
All games at Breslin Center
Clarkston 74, Warren De La Salle 49
Holland West Ottawa 53, Novi 50
Final: 12:15, Saturday
Benton Harbor 60, River Rouge 49
Grand Rapids CC 69, New Haven 53
Final: 6:45, Saturday
Detroit Edison 55, GR Covenant Christian 43
Maple City Glen Lake 62, Monroe St. Mary CC 56
Final: 4:30 p.m., Saturday
Southfield Christian 71, Dollar Bay 32
Buckley 65, Hillsdale Academy 55
Final: 10 a.m., Saturday