After his team had weathered a second quarter barrage of 3s, surged to retake the lead in the third quarter, then watched it wither away and ultimately vanish in the fourth quarter before finally toppling DeWitt in overtime, East Lansing Coach Ray Mitchell defied the idea that his team had been playing with fire.
“It ain’t about the fire,” he said. “It’s ‘grind it out.’ Try to survive and win because, like I said, as long as you come out on top, that’s all that matters. It’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be a game of runs. You’re going to be up. You’re going to be down.”
Two days earlier, after finally tilting a back-and-forth game against St. Johns in their favor in the district quarterfinals to advance and face DeWitt in the semis today, Mitchell said the Trojans needed to learn from mistakes, lest they get beat.
And whether the Trojans were playing with fire or just grinding out a win, they held on to beat the Panthers, 59-52, in overtime, on tonight at Waverly High School. With the win, East Lansing will play host to Waverly on Saturday at noon, with the district title and a trip to regionals on the line.
Following a game where the Trojans, at different points, trailed by six and lead by 12, Mitchell is glad his team gets a chance to keep progressing. Due to Covid-related interruptions in the schedule, Mitchell equates the progress of this current team to that of a team playing in December or January; they simply haven’t had the bulk of experience most teams playing at this time would.
“Our team is extremely inexperienced. It’s really ‘survive and advance,’ this whole season. Like, my expectations are fight and scrap,” Mitchell said. “Try to win by a half a point.”
The first quarter felt familiar to many recent opening frames for the Trojans. The effort on the defensive end was supreme, forcing the Panthers into tough looks. The offense, however, took some time to get in gear.
Still, the Trojans lead, 12-9, after eight minutes.
In the second quarter, though, DeWitt caught fire from deep.
After EL scored an early two-pointer, going ahead 14-9, Landon Hungerford buried two 3s for the Panthers to give them a 15-14 lead. Then, 20 seconds after Hungerford hit his second 3, off a missed Trojans shot, DeWitt pushed in transition and scored a third-straight time from deep, going ahead 18-14.
With his team getting stormed and the DeWitt fans in attendance roaring in approval, Mitchell called timeout with 4:01 left until halftime. East Lansing failed to settle things down, turning the ball over out of the stoppage and then allowing Hungerford to hit his third 3 of the quarter — this time a spot-up attempt from the left wing with 2:51 until half.
EL finally responded, putting together a brief 4-0 burst to get the score to 21-18 in favor of DeWitt. The Panthers countered with another 3, with 1:19 until half. Gabe Montes matched that immediately after with a 3 of his own.
Finally, DeWitt had the ball and looked to take the final shot. All game, EL had struggled to keep the Panthers off the offensive glass, allowing second- and third-shot opportunities for DeWitt. After a drive and kick 3 for the Panthers came up short, it found a DeWitt player for an offensive rebound. They turned and fired a pass to Connor McKean in the corner directly in front of the East Lansing bench. McKean launched a high-arcing 3 as the clock ran out and buried it, giving DeWitt a 27-21 lead at halftime.
In the second quarter, DeWitt outscored East Lansing 18-9, scoring all their points on their six made 3s. East Lansing’s offense was largely lost during the quarter. And yet, the Trojans had weathered the barrage from deep, and only trailed by two possessions at the break.
“And I like the fact — really, we’re a second half team to be honest,” Mitchell said. “I really shouldn’t say that, to be honest, but we are. This is how it is. You gotta figure, when you start a game, teams are going to be executing to a T in the first half. That’s how it happens.”
He continued: “Then halftime comes. Sit down and relax. And the second half is when you’re kind of like — things change.”
Things did change in the second half. East Lansing cranked up the defensive intensity, keeping the Panthers off the score sheet for the first three minutes of the third quarter. And while they stymied the DeWitt offense, EL put on an 8-0 scoring run to take a 29-27 lead on an Ethan Dunn putback with 5:35 left in the third.
After trading scores for a few possessions, the Trojans began building a lead. Dunn, the starting center, scored another putback, followed by senior guard Marcus Wourman scoring from the middle of the lane. DeWitt made one of two free throws, but junior guard Brevin Jackson made an acrobatic layup on an isolation drive, putting the Trojans up 37-30 going into the fourth quarter. EL had outscored DeWitt 16-3 in the quarter.
But, as they had in the first half, the Trojans began to lapse on defense late in the second half. Despite leading by as much as 12 points with 4:22 left in the game, DeWitt managed to cut the lead to just three points with half a minute to play.
Hungerford took the ball up the court for the Panthers and passed over to a teammate, who took a 3 that missed. The rebound went to DeWitt, and back to Hungerford. From the left corner, in front of the DeWitt fans, Hungerford fired a game-tying 3 that knotted the score at 47 with about eight seconds to go.
A game the Trojans could have closed out in regulation was now going to overtime, and DeWitt was riding high off a wild comeback finish.
“We didn’t finish the game properly with our end game execution and that’s something we’ve got to go over,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been talking about it and you know, we have young guys, 18-, 17-year-olds. They got to just learn how to stay disciplined. We talked about discipline at the beginning of the game and, you know, understanding time and score. We were up 10 and we had some — one time he drives, and we’re trying to pass through short windows. We turn the ball over when we’ve got the lead.”
In overtime, though, the Trojans regrouped. Jackson steadied the game for the Trojans early in the extra period, scoring a layup through contact and drawing a foul. He converted the and-1 play to give EL a 50-47 lead. A few minutes later, Dunn gathered a rebound, got fouled, and sank two free throws.
It took until almost a full three minutes before DeWitt even scored in the overtime, and by then, EL had a multi-possession lead. All the team had to do was get to the end of the game with the lead intact this time. And finally, the Trojans did.
“I expected it to be a dogfight in the first half and I expected it to be a dogfight in the second half,” Mitchell said. “There’s no gimmes here. I’m not disappointed. I know what we got. I know what we need to work on. I know we’re not there.”
“But we’re still playing,” he said.
And that’s all that matters these days.
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