East Lansing — Ypsilanti Lincoln has come out with "Why Not Us?" warmups heading into its postseason games.
Well, Lincoln has played with that type of chip on its shoulder attitude, putting itself in the Division 1 state championship game with a dominating 72-56 semifinal win over Howell at the Breslin Center on Friday.
Lincoln, which had not won a regional title before this season, will play for the state championship Saturday at 12:15 p.m. against No. 3 U-D Jesuit.
Lincoln — 22-4 and ranked No. 17 in The Detroit News Super 20 — was led by 6-foot-8 freshman phenom Emoni Bates, who surpassed his average (29 points, 10 rebounds) with a 31-point, 14-rebound performance on the big stage.
Amari Frye, a 6-4 senior guard, contributed 12 points, and 6-2 senior point guard Tahj Chatman 10 points and four assists for Lincoln, which shot 57.4 percent from the field while making 8-of-17 3-pointers and holding a 30-27 rebounding advantage.
So, did Bates think Lincoln had a chance to be playing for a state title when the season began?
“I expected it, just told them if we keep working hard every day then we’d be here,” Bates said. “I just told them I was going to help them. I trust my teammates and they trust me.”
Said Chatman: “I’ve been on varsity for four years and I tell him (Bates) that added pressure, tell him all the time that pressure he gets, just put it on me. I feel like I’m here for him. We all embrace him so there’s no jealousy, none of that. We support him all the time.”
Bates showed why he is considered the top player in the nation for the 2022 class in the semifinal bout.
Bates was on the attack from the get-go, making a 3-pointer, then making a three-point play (basket and free throw) and scoring off a putback off his own miss for a 15-6 lead.
Lincoln led 20-10 after one and then built on the cushion with Bates again leading the way.
Bates made two more 3-pointers, then had a perfect outlet pass on stride to Jalen Fisher for a layup, then followed his own miss, grabbed the offensive rebound and found Frye for a 3-pointer on top of the key and ended a 10-3 run with a showtime dunk off a Fisher pass off the backcourt in transition, which was set up by Cam Johnson’s steal for a 33-17 cushion.
“I told him to throw it off the backboard,” said Bates of the dunk.
“They’ve probably done it eight or nine times (this season),” Lincoln fourth-year coach Jesse Davis said.
Howell coach Nick Simon praised Lincoln for playing strong defense, limiting his team to 41.1 percent shooting, 5-of-18 on 3-pointers. Senior guard Josh Palo scored 16, but on 7-of-23 shooting. Tony Honkala had 12 points and Jake Sargeant, 11.
“They did a great job of playing really good defense, had us take shots quicker than we wanted, and then 4 (Frye) hit one really big 3 from deep which was critical in that run,” said Simon, pointing to Frye’s 3-pointer to open up a 31-17 lead.
Lincoln led 37-22 at halftime, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and even better from deep, making 6-of-11 3-pointers.
And, Bates already had a stat line most players would be proud of for a game, coming into the locker room at the intermission with 18 points and nine rebounds, making 7-of-15 shots from the field and 3-of-6 3-pointers.
“When we’re knocking down shots we’re tough,” Davis said. “We really want to get after it on the defensive end, get guys in the mindset of stopping teams because we average 75 points.”
How badly did Lincoln dominate the first half? Well, Lincoln outscored Howell 12-0 off of turnovers and 13-7 on second-chance points.
Howell couldn’t match Lincoln’s size with 6-5, 170-pound senior Cody Deurloo its tallest player. At times, Howell’s 6-2, 185-pound Josh Palo was guarding Bates.
“It was a fun battle,” said Palo of guarding Bates. “He was taller than me, shooting over my head so I couldn’t do anything about it. Our game plan was to force him to make tough shots and he was making tough shots.”
Howell had a surprising run to the Final Four, especially when you consider it was getting beat by Canton 60-30 in the second half of its KLAA championship game last month.
Howell had a run in the third quarter as well, cutting Lincoln’s lead to 48-35 on Kip French’s inside basket, and it looked like Howell was going to hold the ball for the final shot to try to pull within 10, but French missed his long range shot a couple of seconds early and Chatman went the length of the floor for a layup for a 50-35 lead.
Bates put the exclamation point on his brilliant effort by scoring 11 in the opening four minutes of the fourth quarter, capped off by a dunk in transition for a 63-43 lead, then rejecting a shot less than a minute later.
Now, Lincoln will try to finish the job and hoist the championship trophy on Saturday.
So, when did Davis feel this run could be possible?
“This summer,” Davis replied. “The summertime is when you know how good you can beat and we played without him (Bates) and beat teams we’ve always lost to, beat Muskegon and (Saginaw) Arthur Hill, and that opened my eyes, (making me think) maybe we can do this.”
Ypsilanti Lincoln 72, Howell 56
U-D Jesuit 63, Okemos 25
Final: Saturday, 12:15 p.m.