Trojans Advance to District Semis, Survive St. Johns, 66-55

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Senior guard David Wilkerson (pictured here against Okemos) played a significant role in East Lansing pulling out the win.

Evan Boyd flushed home a soaring, two-handed transition dunk all because of a defensive play he made seconds earlier.

Holding a tenuous 34-30 midway through the third quarter of a district quarterfinal against St. Johns, East Lansing set up to defend an inbounds pass. As the pass came to Boyd’s mark, the rangy sophomore forward extended an arm to jar the ball free toward the sideline. Boyd sprinted after the ball. He secured it and flung it blindly to midcourt behind him — all as Boyd leapt over the sideline, his momentum carrying him out of bounds. 

Meeting the ball at midcourt was senior Trojan guard Marcus Wourman, who sprinted ahead in transition now that he had the ball. Boyd, who had since landed in front of the fans in the bleachers, shot up the left sideline to keep pace with the fastbreak he had started. Wourman came down the middle of the court and spotted Boyd, moving at speed, unguarded. The sophomore collected a simple pass from the senior before rising up and rocking the rim.

As the fans and East Lansing bench erupted on either side of the court, Boyd slightly faced the fans, flexed his arms and screamed “LET’S GO!” as he ran back to defend.

Boyd’s slam was the highlight of a 66-55 win for East Lansing over St. Johns in a district quarterfinal at Waverly High School on Tuesday. With the win, EL faces DeWitt in the semifinals on Thursday at 5 p.m. But it was plays like Boyd’s steal that kickstarted the dunk which ultimately won the Trojans the game. 

Absent a consistent offensive flow for most of the game, the Trojans ground their way to a win. East Lansing started cold shooting from deep and struggled at times to contend with St. Johns’ crisp passing and off-ball cutting on offense.  And still, despite the struggles and a halftime deficit, the Trojans made the right plays and did what every team in March is trying to do: win one more game. 

“Like I told the guys before the game, anybody can get beat at any point in time,” East Lansing Head Coach Ray Mitchell said postgame. “So, it’s about execution. It’s about execution and playing smart and playing to your strengths.”

Early on, the Trojans didn’t do that. Outside shooting hasn’t been a strength for the Trojans all year, Mitchell said, yet they took too many 3s. And after a late first-quarter spurt to take an 11-6 lead, the Trojans offense flatlined and the Redwings exploited the lull. 

A 3 with :15 left in the first quarter made the score 11-9. An early score in the second quarter tied the game. Then, four-straight free throws put St. Johns ahead, 15-11. The lead stretched to 17-11 with 5:15 left until the half after the Redwings offensive passing and ball movement warped the Trojans defense out of shape, leaving a backdoor cutter wide open for layup. 

“We started off 0-for-7 from the three point line,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t think that should be what our focus is when we’re the more athletic team and we’ve got a 6-foot-10 guy inside.” 

The right plays did start to come for East Lansing in the second quarter. Boyd head faked his defender and drove to the basket for a layup, cutting the Trojan deficit to four points, then gathered a rebound and drew a foul on the defensive end. On the next possession, EL scored again to make the score 17-15, in favor of St. Johns. It wasn’t a sequence to fill a highlight reel, but it was moments like this that kept the Trojans afloat against the Redwings.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Evan Boyd (pictured here against Okemos) led East Lansing offensively on Tuesday, including contributing an exclamation point dunk.

St. Johns was playing well on Tuesday. When the offense wasn’t efficiently and competently moving and passing, the Redwings often got to the free throw line, where it was lethal. As a team, St. Johns finished 19-of-24 from the line (79%). On defense, despite being outmatched both size-wise and athletically, St. Johns stuck in and forced the Trojans to work hard and execute correctly to get good shots. 

EL had wanted to exploit the size matchup with Boyd (6-foot-4) and center Ethan Dunn (6-foot-10) against a Redwings team that features almost exclusively 6-footers. And regardless of outright size, the Trojans were on the right side of athletic mismatches all over the court. But still, St. Johns played in a way that forced the Trojans to not just be more athletic, but to play better basketball, in order to win. 

And ultimately the Trojans showed they were the better team as they finally began playing the way their coach wanted them to: getting aggressive on defense and attacking to the rim on offense. 

Boyd was a dominant presence in the second half when he started bullying his smaller defenders into the paint. He led the team with 20 points in the game, almost exclusively scoring on layups or floaters within two or three feet of the hoop. Wourman and junior guard Brevin Jackson — who led the Trojans to a win over the weekend — finally got going downhill to the rim consistently and scoring more. 

And one player showed up in a big way at the right time: senior guard David Wilkerson. 

Mitchell said on Monday he spoke with Wilkerson about being aggressive, but also making the right play. 

“As a senior, he’s been trying to play a little too hard, you know, try to score a little too much, but I told him to be your best overall player,” Mitchell said postgame, “because that’s going to bring your scoring.”

On Tuesday, Wilkerson was that overall player. Longer and taller than Wourman or Jackson, but similarly quick, Wilkerson contributed in multiple ways. 

At the end of the third quarter he showed his scoring prowess, nailing an isolation fadeaway two at the buzzer to give the Trojans a 49-40 lead for the final intermission. And throughout the fourth quarter, Wilkerson popped up. 

When he got the ball at the top of the key and St. Johns doubled him in hopes of forcing a turnover, he calmly flung an assist, over the defenders, to Jackson. Two possessions later, Wilkerson decided to be aggressive and score for himself, which he did after beating his defender off the dribble. And then, one possession after that, following an East Lansing turnover, Wilkerson jumped a St. Johns inbounds pass, intercepting it and taking in the length of the floor for a layup.

That layup put the Trojans up, 60-51, with 2:14 remaining. 

It was the sort of play the Trojans needed, and got, throughout a gritty win on Tuesday. Despite not playing its best game for the whole game, East Lansing put together the plays it needed, when it needed them. 

But Mitchell knows in the postseason, that’s playing with fire. And with only one more game guaranteed, lessons need to be learned from Tuesday’s survival against St. Johns if the Trojans don’t want Thursday’s contest to be their last.

“If you don’t learn from this, you will lose the next game or you will lose the game after that,” Mitchell said. “So the whole thing about the playoffs is you’ve got to learn from mistakes and play the right way. And obviously, hopefully, this is a lesson.”

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