North Central preps for matchup with loaded Southfield Christian

Rob Roos/Sault News Jason Whitens of North Central (30) takes the ball to the basket, while Hillman's Brandon Banks (20) defends during a Class D boys basketball quarterfinal at Sault High School Tuesday night.

ESCANABA — North Central has made it back to the Final Four in the Class D boys’ basketball state tournament.

The unbeaten, top-ranked Jets were favored in all 26 of their previous games. But Game 27, according to North Central coach Adam Mercier, has the Jets shooting for an upset win against second-ranked Southfield Christian (21-5).

“They are good,” Mercier said after Tuesday night’s 74-61 quarterfinal win against third-ranked Hillman. “We’re the underdog. They are the favorite. We know that right off the bat. We have no pressure on us.

“We’re a small public school from the Upper Peninsula,” Mercier added. “They are supposed to win that game. So we will go down there with the attitude that we are just playing basketball and having fun. And enjoying the 13 years of basketball our kids have played together. We will enjoy that part of it.”

The semifinal showdown is set for 6 p.m. today at Michigan State’s Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Why would North Central be the underdog?

Southfield Christian won three straight Class D state titles from 2012-14 and then moved up to Class C the past two seasons. North Central stepped in and captured the last two Class D state championships to set up today’s showdown.

The Eagles are rolling through the tournament, including a 64-42 win over Fowler in their quarterfinal contest.

And they will be motivated to snap North Central’s nation-leading 81-game winning streak.

“Yeah, I think it does mean a little more,” Eagles’ coach Josh Baker told Drew Ellis of the Oakland Press about the matchup. “We have each won a couple of titles and they have won a crazy amount of games in a row. They are an impressive program and we are excited for the opportunity to play them.”

The game will match the Associated Press Class D co-Players of the Year — North Central’s Jason Whitens and Southfield Christian’s Bryce Washington.

Washington, who has Division I college offers from Central Michigan, Oakland, Buffalo and Harvard, averages 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals per game.

Washington scored 13 points against Fowler. Sophomore Harland Beverly led the Eagles in that game with 24 points and All-State first team selection Brock Washington scored two points.

Whitens, who scored 31 points against Hillman, has produced 2,008 career points, He also finished third in voting for Mr. Basketball in Michigan while averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds and 6. 1 assists per game.

Whitens has plenty of help from his fellow starters — Dawson Bilski, Bobby Kleiman, Marcus Krachinski and Seth Polfus.

Southfield Christian has played a challenging schedule, which includes losses to Ann Arbor Pioneer (66-62), Detroit U-D Jesuit (77-42), Southfield Arts & Technology (79-77), River Rouge (62-47) and Detroit Country Day (67-61).

River Rouge is playing in the Class B semifinals against Ludington, which defeated Gladstone in a regional championship game.

The Eagles also went 12-0 in the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue Division.

Mercier and the Jets stayed overnight in Gaylord after the Hillman win before making their way to East Lansing. He said the Jets will be ready for what should be their toughest game of the season.

“They are a formidable opponent to be a state champion,” Mercier said. “They have Division I and Division II talent in their starting lineup. They are the real deal. With us playing an underdog role, it has a nice ring to it.”

Lansing Christian (19-6) will meet Buckley (25-0) in the other Class D semifinal at 7:50 p.m., with the two semifinal winners squaring off in Saturday’s 10 a.m. state championship game.

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