North Central sets out for 3-peat vs. Buckley

Escanaba Daily Press/Dennis Grall North Central coach Adam Mercier shouts instruction to his players during Thursday's Class D semifinal game against Southfield Christian. Mercier, the Associated Press Class D coach of the year, brings the Jets into today's title game against Buckley as they seek a third straight state championship.

EAST LANSING — How sweet it is. But how can it get any better?

The North Central Jets will try to answer comedian Jackie Gleason’s age-old question at 10 a.m. today when they face Buckley for the Class D boys basketball championship. It could be no sweeter than claiming a third straight state title and extending the nation’s best active winning streak to a remarkable 83 games.

North Central was flying high Thursday after somehow squeezing past powerful Southfield Christian 84-83 in double overtime at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center. A short shot by Seth Polfus just a skosh ahead of the final buzzer provided the margin of victory in what many observers regarded as one of the best games in state tourney history.

North Central coach Adam Mercier was still trying to recover from that epic contest Friday noon. “Southfield Christian is so good. That team is solid. They were scary good on film and on the floor they were that much better,” he said.

“We’re happy to still be alive. It will be a unique challenge to come down from a big game like that.”

It was the closest the Jets have come to losing since that 81-79 setback to Cedarville in the quarterfinals March 18, 2014 at Marquette High School. Oh sure, they’ve had some tight games while cruising to 82 straight victories, such as last week’s 75-73 escape against Dollar Bay in the regional opener in Negaunee.

But when you average 78.6 points and allow a stingy 40.7, it is obvious the challenges were few and far between. Only four times this season had the Jets scored fewer than the 69 points they had through four quarters Thursday, and none of those games were closer than 22 points.

Thursday the Jets were on the brink much of the night, with a triple by Jason Whitens late in the first overtime tying the score at 76 to force the decisive extra session. The game-winner was typical of how these Jets operate, with Polfus getting a tough two-handed jump pass from Dawson Bilski as the last option in the final breath of the game.

Mercier said several things stood out in North Central’s gritty comeback triumph. “We got a stop here and there and we hit big shots and from different guys,” he said. “There were big plays in a big game.

“It was collective. That is the true mark of this team.”

The game-winning play also displayed how the Jets, who have basically been playing ball and doing everything together since about pre-school, can adjust on the fly. Bilski had the ball at the mid-court stripe with options to Whitens, Marcus Krachinski and Bobby Kleiman, but the Eagles knew the plan and had them covered, so he adjusted and found Polfus.

“I think one thing that summarizes these guys, and they’ve always been this way, is that they’re good at adapting,” Mercier said in his post-game press conference in the bowels of the Breslin Center.

Mercier also adapted, switching to their normal man-to-man defense after the Eagles scorched their 2-3 zone with eight three-point baskets in the first half. “We rolled the dice to keep them away from dribble penetration,” Mercier said of forging a 31-30 halftime lead despite the long-range artillery display. “We wanted to slow down their transition game. We couldn’t have played all night in man-to-man.”

Buckley (26-0) also is dangerous beyond the arc, even though coach Blair Moss said he prefers to get dribble penetration. The Bears, in the second half, used the penetration-and-pitch back approach to get past Lansing Christian 68-61 in Thursday’s finale.

“We don’t live and die by the three,” said Moss, even though his top guns, Austin Harris and all-stater Denver Cade, combined to sink 103 triples with 50 percent accuracy heading into the regionals.

Harris had 28 points and 10 rebounds Thursday while Cade, who averaged 21 points during the season, had 13 points and nine rebounds. Joey Weber, another dangerous guard, had 10 points and six boards.

This will be the first state title shot by the Bears, who have been playing basketball for more than 100 years. Buckley led for all but 16 seconds of the final 27 minutes Thursday, although Lansing Christian closed within two points before Buckley secured the win with a 7-2 spurt over the final 63 seconds.

Mercier said the Jets “might have a slight advantage” over Buckley in the title-game atmosphere. “It definitely helps to know the routine,” he said.

Part of that routine was not practicing Friday, partially to allow the players to settle down after such a frenetic semifinal but also to avoid issues of finding a gym, unloading and loading equipment on the bus, etc.

The Jets scouted Buckley’s semifinal via the MHSAA on-line service and film of other games, spending about three hours after Thursday’s game. “They are a great team. They look like they are pretty hard-nosed kids,” Mercier said.

Mercier and assistants Gerald Whitens and Tyler Mercier put their coaching hats on Friday afternoon to determine a game plan, then attended the Class A semifinals.

“We had to come down from the clouds,” he said of early Friday’s respite. “It is a continuing effort for us and I want them to enjoy it for a while. Then we’ve got to re-focus.”