By Gavin Raath | Great Lakes Hoops
EAST LANSING, Michigan — If someone would have told me that the final of the Class C championship game between Beecher and Laingsburg would be 40-39, I would’ve said congratulations to Laingsburg on an improbable victory. If that same someone told me that Monte Morris would be sick with flu-like symptoms and would miss a portion of the game, then I would wonder why it was so close.
But Saturday evening, Beecher showed why they’re the district of champions, overcoming odds and, according to coach Mike Williams, beating their toughest opponent of the season, 40-39.
“Their coach does a great job teaching his team fundamentals,” said Williams of Laingsburg head coach Greg Mitchell. “Those kids really understand what they’re doing. I warned our guys that they couldn’t just go out and run through. Those kids have nothing to be ashamed of. That’s the best team we played all year, including Pershing.
“These are the games I live for.”
Coach Williams has always thought outside of the box. At clinics and in press conferences, I’ve heard him often say things like, “we use our defense to create offense.” Nuance like that is probably what makes him a repeat state champ and perhaps the best coach in the state, but his nuance met its match with Coach Mitchell.
Mitchell’s guys didn’t struggle for one second with the much-applauded Beecher press. That led to an early deficit and confusion on offense. But as the game wore on Beecher found its groove, involving more guys on offense, and taking more risks on defense even if it led to fouls.
Such a performance was necessary with a sick Mr. Basketball.
Ultimately, Mitchell navigated his team to what every basketball coach dreams of: possession of the ball and just one basket away from a state championship. It wasn’t in the cards for the Wolfpack, but they gave their coach and their town something to remember forever.
For Beecher, back-t0-back state championships will put them in the conversation with some of the best high school basketball programs in the state’s history. It’s not simply about the two straight state titles, however, it’s about the staying power of a great coach who has led his program to the Breslin Center four consecutive seasons. There’s only one team in Michigan that knows its way around the Breslin better than Beecher, and they were playing at the Palace today.
— I was really hoping for a standout Mr. Basketball performance from Morris, but it was clear from the beginning that something was off. I’ve seen Morris several times over the years and he did not look the same. The stomach flu will do that to you, but Laingsburg’s stingy defense didn’t help. Even so, Morris led all scorers with 16 points, two assists, two steals and two blocks. The last of his pair of blocks was on Laingsburg’s final possession, and from close range.
— Aquavius Burks, one of the state’s top players in the 2016 class, chipped in nine points in 21 minutes of play. Only a great coach who knows his personnel would put a freshman on the floor in key situations. Burks delivered, and I hope he’ll follow in Man Man’s footsteps for the next three years in Buctown.
— The story of the fourth quarter for Beecher boiled down to the aforementioned block by Morris and a pair of baskets by forward Markell Lucas. The 6-4 senior was well on his way to the most miserable performance of his career on Saturday, misfiring on his first eight attempts from the field. Even so, Coach Williams never went away from him. In the game’s final four minutes, Lucas made two strong moves to the basket and finished on both. He played in all 32 minutes and also pulled down six rebounds.
— I’ve seen Laingsburg a few times over the last several years. Here are a few things I know about the program:
1. If it’s low-scoring then it favors a Wolfpack win. Playing for Coach Greg Mitchell is a little like playing for Coach Izzo at the college level. If someone averages double-digits, then they would probably average 20 anywhere else. The games are low-scoring, and every possession is carefully planned.
2. The aforesaid Mitchell is quietly one of the best coaches in the state. He’s always done way more with less even though his name is absent from the long list of Breslin coaches from the CMAC, but you can bet he’s a big reason why teams like Fulton, Fowler and Bath were battle-tested enough to get that far.
3. There’s usually a kid on the team with the last name Genther. However, this season, no Genther, no problem. This is one of the deeper teams I’ve seen out of Laingsburg with legitimate threats from every position. Of course they’ve got a really good one in wing Jake Zelinski. He’s a firey floor leader([and I’m not just saying that because he has red hair). Great size, strength, ball-handling and not in the least intimidated by Beecher’s name.