These days, when the basketball games start to mean more and more, and a loss ends a season in an instant, East Lansing boys basketball Head Coach Ray Mitchell will tell you he’s happy so long as his team won.
“I always say, long as we’re one point up at the end of the game, that’s all that matters,” Mitchell said.
And Mitchell is right; winning, and surviving to play in the next round of the playoffs is always enough to be satisfied. But that does not mean that all wins are the same.
A team can blow their opponents out or calmly ice a close victory at the free throw line. A late game surge can make a close game comfortable, or a comfortable game close. A last-second made shot can deliver miraculous victory, accompanied by a crushing blow to the defeated.
Or, teams can win like the Trojans did on Thursday night, when they topped Coldwater, 63-57, in a regional final at Grand Ledge High School.
With a trip to the state quarterfinals on the line, the Trojans and Cardinals locked in for 32 minutes of back-and-forth, up-and-down, desperate basketball. East Lansing fell behind, only to claw into the lead. The stars showed up in key moments, but so did an unsung bench player. The Trojans withstood a frantic flurry of five made 3s from the Cardinals in the dying minutes of the game.
And at the end of the night, it was the Trojans moshing at midcourt with the regional championship trophy.
“We’re getting it done. And that’s all that matters,” Mitchell said.
Coldwater’s length on defense — maximized by the 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones they deployed — gave the Trojans’ offense fits. By the time Mitchell called a timeout with 2:27 left in the first quarter, East Lansing had only scored five points.
And defensively, while not wilting, the Trojans had given up 13 points. Key miscues, like leaving a shooter open for a corner 3, and a bad foul on a shot in transition, had cost EL.
Following Mitchell’s team talk in the huddle, the Trojans’ starters kicked into gear, going on a mini run to end the quarter. Two points each from junior guard Brevin Jackson, junior center Ethan Dunn and sophomore forward Evan Boyd helped the Trojans trail by only four, 15-11, after eight minutes of play.
The momentum carried into the next frame, when the Trojans retook the lead — 16-15 — for the first time since lead 2-0 in the first minute of the game. East Lansing had not, however, seized the lead for good.
“It’s been happening all season,” senior guard David Wilkerson said of the Trojans falling behind. “We’ve just been a second half team. It’s like, keep pushing through. We’re a good team, we’ve just got to keep pushing through adversity.”
The teams began trading two-point buckets, and it was an unlikely face popping up to score for EL: junior Evan Sundermann.
Sundermann, known mostly for his exploits punting for the East Lansing football team, had texted and asked to meet with his coach earlier in the week. Sundermann told his coaches he wanted to play more. Mitchell told him he needed to be more intense and energetic in his play.
“To make a long story short: He had his best practice yesterday. He was incredible. So on the bus ride to this game, I told him ‘Be ready early.’ I knew he was going to be ready because anytime a kid comes to you and expresses, you know, that he wants to play more, and he shows it in practice, that translates,” Mitchell said. “We always say, ‘So shall you practice, so shall you play.’ And that’s what he did.”
Sundermann scored four points in transition, kicking off an 11-2 run to end the half for the Trojans, putting EL up 29-22 at half.
And just that four point outburst would’ve been a solid contribution from Sundermann, but he was not done. He tacked on four more points in the third quarter by positioning himself well under the hoop and slipping away from the defense.
Sundermann finished with eight points in a game the Trojans won by six.
“This whole year I felt like I wanted to contribute a little more, so I just asked him, what do I need to do?” Sundermann said about his meeting with Mitchell. “And he told me just better defense and being more intense. So, I just let that sink in, just took it, learned from it, and did it. Tried to do exactly what he said.”
The Trojans were eyeing a knockout blow. Leading by the largest margin all game for either team — 14 points — with 5:59 left to play, EL looked poised to cruise to a win.
But a desperate opponent did not break, and it was the Cardinals applying the pressure late.
Over the course of the final five minutes, Coldwater’s array of 3-point shooters let fire, making five-straight attempts from deep. For a period, EL struggled to answer, and a 14-point lead shrunk to 10. Then to five and finally four. The Trojans missed critical free throws.
But when it mattered most, East Lansing got a few more plays — and a lucky bounce. With 21.1 seconds left in the game, senior guard Marcus Wourman ripped the ball from Coldwater’s Ethan Crabtree after playing smothering defense on the opposing guard. After the steal, Wourman was fouled and made both free throws, giving EL a seven-point margin. They turned out to be important free throws.
On the Cardinals’ next possession, their final real chance, Brandon Downs fired a desperation 3. Wourman fouled him with 9.7 seconds left with the Trojans still leading by seven. If the shot fell, and Downs made the ensuing free throw, the Cardinals could make it a one-possession margin.
The ball bounced high off the back of the rim and came back down on the front right. It skipped up again and came back down, this time on the left side, where it momentarily settled before rolling, relatively harmless, out.
Downs still got to attempt three free throws, but some plain luck prevented an error from becoming, potentially, an unmitigated disaster.
“But those guys, they really shoot the ball, man. They strapped them up just like us,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t want to lose. So we knew they were going to make shots. We do have to finish games out, do a better job of making our free throws, and we’ll get back in the lab and continue to work on that.”
But at least for now, Mitchell can be happy — his team won with five points to spare.
See all of Gary Caldwell’s photos for ELi of this game by clicking here. You are welcome to download and share the photos! Just remember to credit “Gary Caldwell for ELi.”