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March 16, 2002

March Madness on the Prep Hardwood

As March Madness moves along in the NCAA Tournament, the goings-on are equally mad in high school gyms across the country. If any state is known for a rabid obsession with prep hoops, it is Indiana, and Michigan signee Chris Hunter has moved his team into the thick of the hoopla.

Hunter (Wide)Hunter (right), a 6-11 power forward/center, and his Gary (Ind.) West Side Cougars advanced to the semistate (state quarterfinals) stage of Indiana's Class 4A tournament a week ago with a 70-62 win against South Bend Washington in their regional championship game. West Side had previously cleared the sectional tournament successfully.

The Cougars' semistate opponent on Saturday, March 16 at Lafayette Jefferon was DeKalb High School, alma mater of Iowa senior Luke Recker. DeKalb entered the game with a season record of 23-1.

Despite having three senior Division I signees in Hunter, point guard Brandon Cameron (Penn State) and forward Keith Christmas (Idaho), West Side earned a reputation for underachieving in the past two seasons, in each of which it was upset in the first round of the sectional tournament.

Washington was one of the few higher-ranked teams the Cougars faced this year. If defeating them did not dispel the team's perception as underachievers, the game against DeKalb should do so.

The Cougars were in control early, jumping out to a 20-7 lead after one period. In the second quarter, they maintained their advantage, and were ahead 28-13 with less than two minutes to play before DeKalb reeled off nine straight points to close to within six, 28-22, at the half.

In the third quarter, the Gary Post-Tribune reported, "Hunter began to take over." He scored nine of his team's 15 points in the period as it pushed its advantage back into double digits, 43-32. Nothing, however, suggested the furious fourth quarter that lay ahead, during which DeKalb would match its scoring output of the first three periods combined.

DeKalb's players hit 12 of 18 shots from the field in the second half, including 5-of-6 three-point attempts. Twice they closed the margin to three points: to 49-46 at the 4:31 mark and again to 57-54 at the 2:17 mark. The Cougars repeatedly withstood the rallies, though, scoring 26 points of their own to hang on for a 69-64 win.

Hunter hit 6-of-11 field-goal attempts and a perfect 5-of-5 free throws, finishing with 17 points -- fifteen of them coming in the second half -- to go with team-bests of 12 rebounds and three steals. He also blocked three DeKalb shots in the game.

"I just wanted to come out and play hard," he told the Post-Tribune. "It just kind of happened.

"I tried to crash the boards, hold them to one shot and hit the offensive boards. I got a couple that way."

In the process, he managed to impress former Indiana Mr. Basketball Recker, who was among those in attendance. "Hunter is a great player with a world of potential," he told the Munster (Ind.) Times. "By the time he leaves (college), he'll be something."

Indianapolis Pike, last year's 4A champ and a school that Hunter previously told The Wolverine he expected to be among the Cougars' toughest competition, won the other 4A semistate game. The teams will meet at 8:30 CST on Saturday, March 23 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, which hosted the Big Ten tournament just two weeks earlier.

"There was never a doubt. Not at all," he told the Times. "If you work hard enough at something, you want to achieve it and you believe it, you can get it."

Before they can rest, however, the Cougars have one more game of hard work ahead of them.

* * *

Two other Michigan signees, 6-6 wing Lester Abram of Pontiac (Mich.) Northern and 6-9 center/power forward Graham Brown of Mio (Mich.) High School, moved into the quarterfinals of the Michigan Class A and Class D state tournaments, respectively.

In its regional semifinal, facing an 11-11 Leland High School squad, Mio came out flat, trailing 15-11 early in the second quarter. However, the Thunderbolts then reeled off a 22-2 run to seize a 33-17 halftime advantage. Mio continued its domination in the second half, and cruised to a 65-26 win. Brown nearly duplicated Leland's scoring total single-handedly, posting totals of 24 points and 13 rebounds -- both game-highs.

BrownG (Story)The victory allowed Mio to advance to the regional final after losing in the semifinals in each of the preceding two years. Brown (right) acknowledged the significance of progressing deeper into the tournament, but downplayed talk of increased pressure from the team's previous losses.

"There wasn't much pressure," he told the Alpena News. "We were looking forward to coming in here and playing. We were looking forward to getting revenge for the last two years."

Mio's opponent in the regional final was Buckley. The Thunderbolts, with several ill players, jumped out to a 7-0 lead and never trailed, although they also could not put the game away until the final minutes. A 50-33 Mio lead after three quarters was trimmed to eight by Buckley at the 2:22 mark, but they could not close the gap any further, and Mio held on for a 66-54 win to claim the regional title.

Brown contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds in the win, with which the Thunderbolts moved into the Class D quarterfinals. Their opponent on Tuesday, March 19 will be the winner of Saturday's contest between Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian and McBain Northern Michigan Christian.

* * *

On Wednesday, March 13, Northern faced Clarkston in a regional semifinal, the latest test in its defense of the Class A state title it won a year ago. Clarkston was one of two teams to beat the Huskies this season; Northern went 1-2 in its regular-season games against Pontiac Central and Clarkston, accounting for all four of its losses. Northern's defeat of Central in the district semifinals, the teams' fourth meeting, moved the Huskies into the regional championship game, in which they beat Lake Orion, 64-55. The winner of the fourth Northern-Clarkston game would earn a trip to the regional championship game two days later.

Abram1 (Story)The morning of the game, Lester Abram (right) watched a video of a former Michigan State star. "I was watching Magic Johnson's video," he told the Detroit Free Press.

"No, I didn't skip school," the academics-minded Abram added. "I was watching it at 6 and school doesn't start until 7:15." Even though it was outside of school hours, he was able to learn something.

"When you drive to the basket and they collapse on you, pull up for a shot," he said. "I've been called for a lot of charges against Clarkston, but today I pulled up and shot or passed it."

Early in the game, it did little to change the Huskies' fortunes against Clarkston, which took a 26-25 halftime lead into the locker room. In the third quarter, however, Northern seized the advantage by holding Clarkston to 1-of-13 shooting from the field. The Huskies outscored the Wolves 26-12 in the second half to claim a solid win, 51-38.

Abram led the way for Northern with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists. "We didn't want revenge," he told the Oakland Press. "We just feel like whoever we play is in our way to get to the championship. We just had to get them out of the way."

The next team with the misfortune of being in the Huskies' way was White Lake Lakeland. The result was never in doubt; Northern scored the first 14 points and never looked back, claiming a 77-49 win.

Abram only played 12 minutes as he nursed a slight groin pull sustained in the Clarkston game, but was remarkably efficient, scoring 15 points, including 13 in the third quarter.

The 20-4 Huskies now move into the state quarterfinals, where they will meet Southfield-Lathrup on Tuesday, March 19. That game will be played at the University of Detroit's Callihan Hall.

* * *

Dion Harris, a 6-4 shooting guard from Detroit Redford and one of U-M's top recruiting targets in the junior class, has his eyes on the same state championship that Abram is seeking to defend. On March 13, Redford met Detroit Mackenzie in the regional semifinals. The Huskies, 21-2 on the year, had a score to settle with Mackenzie, which had knocked them out of the tournament in last year's regional championship game. Redford had won the teams' two prior meetings this season.

In the first half, Mackenzie seemed to have solved whatever had ailed its team in the earlier contests, and took a 30-22 lead into the locker room. The Huskies began to claw their way back in the third period, and were able to tie the game in the fourth and, with 1:30 remaining, to pull ahead to a 53-50 lead. They would not relinquish the advantage, holding on for a 60-56 win.

HarrisD1 (Story)Harris (right) led all scorers with 22 points, eight of which came in the fourth quarter. Redford managed to hold Mackenzie's Calvin Wooten, the Detroit Public School League's leading scorer, to 16 points.

"They had us down at halftime every game we played them," Harris told the Detroit News. "We talked at halftime about wanting it more. We got some offensive rebounds in the second half and that helped out."

Revenge was again on the Huskies' minds in the regional title game. One of Redford's two losses came against Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary's and Sports Illustrated coverboy LeBron James; the other came at the hands of Detroit Martin Luther King in the PSL playoffs.

Reflecting on the loss to King, Harris told the Detroit Free Press, "I remembered a lot of angry faces. It kind of motivated us to come in here and beat them worse than they beat us."

And so they did. Redford led 34-26 after one half, and only built upon that lead with a 16-7 run to open the third period. When the final horn sounded, the Huskies had spanked King, 69-47, led by 21 points from Harris.

On Tuesday, March 19, Redford, 23-2, will face 20-4 Detroit Finney in a Class A quarterfinal at U-D Jesuit. If Redford's Huskies cross paths with Pontiac Northern's Huskies, it will be in the Class A state championship game on March 23 at the Breslin Center.


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