East Lansing — River Rouge battled back from a 13-point second half deficit to put itself in position to force overtime in the Division 2 state championship game against Hudsonville Unity Christian Saturday night at the Breslin Center, but couldn’t finish the job.
River Rouge coach Lamonta Stone has been saying all year the only banners River Rouge has hanging in its gym is its 14 state championship banners and he was hoping, no planning to put No. 15 up, but it didn’t happen with Unity Christian earning a 58-55 victory.
Stone guided River Rouge to consecutive Class B state championships in 1998 and ’99 and got his team back to the title game for the first time in 20 years.
River Rouge forced nine turnovers in the final quarter to pull within 58-55 with 18.1 seconds left when Micah Parrish made two free throws after getting fouled on a 3-pointer.
Then, River Rouge forced a double dribble with its press, the ninth Unity Christian turnover of the quarter and 23rd of the game, but missed on a pair of 3-pointers in the final seconds, one coming from Nigel Colvin who made a 3-pointer as time expired to force overtime Friday, a 72-66 semifinal comeback win over Harper Woods Chandler Park.
Unity Christian (25-2) beat River Rouge — 23-2 and ranked No. 4 in The News Super 20 — at its own game in the third quarter when it forced several turnovers to put itself in position to win its first state championship in school history after being state runner-up in 1963 and again 10 years later.
River Rouge got sloppy with the ball during the third quarter and it wiped out its title chances with Unity Christian turning the turnovers into points with senior guard Noah Wiswary leading the way.
Wiswary scored 11 of his game-high 17 points during the pivotal third quarter when Unity Christian outscored River Rouge by a 19-8 margin to carry a 47-36 lead into the final quarter.
Wiswary scored 11 during a 19-4 run to turn a 30-28 deficit into a 47-34 lead with 1:20 left in the third.
“We went right to him, said Unity Christian coach Scott Soodsma of Wiswary. "(I) talked about wanting to go toe-to-toe with them right away and I was really excited with the way we pushed the ball up the floor and I told Noah, 'You have to keep going, you have to keep pushing it, don’t get tentative and I thought that was the difference. We beat them down the floor a few times and got some pretty good looks.”
Wiswary credited his teammates.
“I just think my teammates got me open, I got away a bit and they were open on threes and I just got a lot of floaters,” Wiswary said.
River Rouge increased the pressure in the fourth, forcing a handful of turnovers with its press and half court to pull within 52-47 on Dan Few’s putback with 4:12 left, then forced several more to continue to fight its way back to a one possession game, but again couldn’t finish the job.
Soodsma said Unity Christian usually does a better job of taking care of the ball. He was proud of his team’s rebounding, holding a 31-16 edge on the glass.
“We do not turn the ball over so give River Rouge a lot of credit,” Soodsma said. “We average probably 10 to 12 (turnovers) a game, ball security is something we preach, but with the intensity of that game and the way they were coming at us I give them a lot of credit.”
Soodsma pointed out that Unity Christian outrebounded defending Class B state champion Benton Harbor by 19 in the regional final win, then outrebounded Grand Rapids South Christian by 21 in the state quarterfinal Tuesday.
Unity Christian also did a good job to slow down Colvin, who scored 11 first-quarter points (4-of-5 shooting) by making three 3-pointers but only took three more shots the rest of the game. Colvin finished with a team-high 15 points. Parrish scored 13.
“I think they flat-out face-guarded him or denied him,” Stone said. “We don’t really run things to get Nigel the ball, that’s how I know if our offense is executing the way its supposed to be.
"We’re a drive-and-kick team. We get in the lane and make teams help and Nigel is usually the benefactor of teams helping because we’re in the lane. If we don’t get a layup, Nigel’s going to get a wide open jump shot and I thought at times they sucked in, just like normal, and I’ll look at the tape but it’s maybe just a situation where we’re getting in the paint and we’re not making the kick out pass, not making the right offensive play. I’ll have to look at the tape.”
Stone also felt his team gambled too much on defense, resulting in easy baskets at the other end for Unity Christian.
“I thought the pressure was good, but I thought we gambled a little too much,” Stone said. “Our defense is not based on gambling, it’s pressure, denying the wings and keeping guys in front of us. I thought on a number of occasions there was too much gambling and reaching and that led to three-on-four advantages for them or four-on-five advantages and they are too good of an offensive team for us to give them those advantages.
“Defensively, we were bad, bad the whole game and they were getting too many easy looks. They were getting in the lane and that’s not the way we had been playing defensive basketball to this point.”
T.J. VanKoevering, a 6-5 senior who scored 17 in a regional final win over Benton Harbor, finished with 13, including two free throws and an inside shot after Unity Christian broke the press for a 56-47 cushion with 2:20 remaining.
There will be no state runner-up banner in River Rouge’s gym.
“We talked all week, all year about how River Rouge basketball is based on state championships,” Stone said. “There’s banners in our gymnasium, 14 state championship banners. Coach (Lofton) Greene has a number of runner-up, second-place teams and he didn’t place those banners in the gymnasium so I’m not going to place them there.
"That’s my mentor, that’s the guy I played for and everything I know about basketball is based on Coach Greene. If he’s not satisfied with runner-ups than neither can I be.”