Gary (Ind.) West Side is finally stepping into the destiny that many observers believed to be the team's birthright, and enjoying the ride. Thanks in large part to the play of 6-11 Michigan power forward signee Chris Hunter, the Cougars rolled through the early rounds of the Indiana Class 4A state tournament, claiming sectional and regional championships and advancing to the semistate round.
After winning the sectional in 1999, West Side had seen talented teams upset in the first round in both 2000 and 2001. Looking at the team's chances to improve on those showings, it was not hard to find skeptics in the Indiana prep ranks, even after the Cougars managed finally to clear the opening round.
On March 2, West Side met Gary Lew Wallace with the sectional title on the line. The Cougars controlled the game most of the way, and took a 52-40 lead into the final period. After the teams traded baskets in the first minute and a half of the fourth quarter, though, Wallace stormed back with a 10-2 run, slicing the Cougars' lead to 56-52 with 4:46 remaining.
After that, though, Wallace sputtered, and West Side methodically hammered away in the post with Hunter (right) and his 6-7 teammate, Idaho signee Keith Christmas. Each scored six points in the final 4:46 to help lead the Cougars to a 72-61 win and the sectional championship.
For the game, Hunter led West Side with 23 points, on 10-of-16 shooting, and 11 rebounds. He made it clear in speaking with the Munster (Ind.) Times he did not mind the physical treatment he received from Wallace.
"I'm happy they're letting me play," he told the paper. "That'll get me ready for the next level. I have no fear of getting hurt. In this game, you can't worry about stuff like that. You go hard all the time."
His coach, John Boyd, praised the determination of Hunter and his teammates. "You've got to have faith in these kids," Boyd said. "Chris Hunter said, 'We're cutting these nets down tonight' and they weren't going to quit."
With the win, West Side moved into the regional semifinals on March 9, a potentially grueling day that would include the regional title game if the Cougars won. In its 10 a.m. semifinal, West Side, 19-4 on the season, faced an 18-5 Valparaiso team.
The Cougars were miserable in the opening period, when they actually were shut out by Valparaiso, which led 9-0 after the first eight minutes. Down 25-15 as the second half began, West Side stormed back. The team reeled off a 19-5 third quarter to seize the lead, and while it was unable to pull away in the fourth quarter, West Side repeatedly withstood Valparaiso's attempts to rally, and held on to win, 42-39.
Hunter struggled, hitting just 3-of-9 from the field and 4-of-8 from the free-throw line on his way to 10 points, and adding five boards and five blocks. West Side's other Division I signees, Christmas and Penn State-bound point guard Brandon Cameron, fared even worse, scoring eight and three, respectively. Nonetheless, thanks to 14 points from senior Dennis Gates, the Cougars marched on to face 22-3 South Bend Washington in the regional final at 8 p.m. that same day.
The top-ranked team in Northern Indiana, West Side came into the Washington game ranked No. 18 in the statewide coaches poll. Washington was No. 11 in the same rankings, and had been picked by West Side's hometown newspaper, the Gary Post-Tribune, to win the regional.
The Cougars had no problem with the sort of false start that nearly cost them the Valparaiso game. They led 17-13 after the first quarter and 34-31 at the half. In the third quarter, Washington came back and seized a 48-46 lead heading into the final period.
In the fourth quarter, the long day (Washington's semifinal had immediately followed West Side's) began to catch up to the teams. Hunter would be the first victim.
During the first 1:08 of the period, in which Washington scored five of the first seven points, Hunter went down with a cramp in his upper thigh. West Side responded to Washington's mini-run with a quick streak of its own, scoring five straight points to tie the game at 53, and Hunter returned shortly thereafter, at the 6:10 mark.
Exhaustion next struck Washington. West Side reclaimed the lead and moved ahead, 62-57, with three minutes remaining. From there, the Cougars sealed the game from the line to claim a 70-62 win.
Although he "played sparingly in the second half," according to the Times, Hunter had 15 points and led all players with 11 rebounds.
West Side is now 21-4, and moves into a semistate (state semifinal) matchup with DeKalb, which is 23-1 on the year. That game is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 16 at Lafayette Jefferson.
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Hunter's fellow signee, 6-6 wing Lester Abram of Pontiac (Mich.) Northern, also continues to march toward a state title. The Huskies were successful in that quest a year ago, but this year they have been hounded by a pair of nemeses.
During the regular season, Northern played three games each against Pontiac Central and Clarkston High. Each team beat the Huskies twice and lost to them once, accounting for all four of Northern's losses this season. Northern was 14-0 against all other opponents.
The Huskies cannot have liked seeing that their title defense would open on March 6 against the winner of an opening-round game between Pontiac Central and Rochester High. Rochester's star, 6-10 Michigan State signee Paul Davis, saw his season end with a broken ankle in February. Central's 72-44 win surprised no one.
Although it was a postseason game, the Northern-Central matchup was to be played on Central's home floor, the site of the tourney. It was not merely the latest installment in a highly competitive series, of course. The game also divided the loyalties of fans in Pontiac, with all of the teams' earlier meetings being overshadowed by their final 32 minutes on the court together. On second thought, better make that 44 minutes.
In the early going, it appeared that Central would continue to beguile Northern as it had earlier in the year. The Chiefs held a 12-point halftime advantage after leading by as much as 15 in the first half. Abram had only scored six points in the first two quarters.
In the second half, the Huskies clawed their way back. They pulled within two points on three separate occasions in the fourth quarter, but could never pull even. With the clock winding down and Central leading 50-47, Abram (right) knocked down a three-pointer with seven seconds remaining. Central failed to score, and the game headed to overtime knotted at 50.
Central was once again in the lead, 59-57, late in the extra period. With 14 seconds remaining, Northern's Derrick Ponder converted a lay-up to tie the game. When Central's buzzer-beater clanged off the rim, the teams headed to a second overtime period.
The second OT resolved nothing, and the teams moved into a third extra period. Central was up by one, 69-68, when an Abram tip-in put the Huskies in front with 1:23 to go.
After an unsuccessful trip downcourt by Central, Abram got a breakaway and was on his way up for a dunk that would extend Northern's lead to three when he was fouled from behind with 15 seconds left. He fell to the floor in pain and had to leave the game. As it would turn out, Abram's injury was fortunately only a cramp in his calf, and not something more serious. Nonetheless, the Huskies had to bring in a substitute to shoot Abram's free throws.
Northern senior Debon Johnson calmly sank both shots, fixing the final margin of 72-69 as the Huskies claimed an exhausting three-overtime win.
After matching his first-half scoring total with six third-quarter points, Abram scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He finished with a game-high 33 points to go with his 13 rebounds.
After the game, according to the Oakland Press, Northern coach Robert Rogers grabbed the hand of Central coach Lance Davis and held it above their heads. "We were like two boxers in the Olympics," Rogers told the Oakland Press. "Pontiac was the real winner tonight. This was an all-time classic for the city."
The paper praised Abram's play. "Abram made every big play down the stretch . . . . Even the big plays he didn't make, his balky calf influenced."
The Oakland Press also described his reaction after the win. "'I told you we weren't going home,' Abram shouted, flat on his back, his spasming calf muscle causing him to wail in pain. 'I told you, baby. But that's just one game. We've got six more.'"
The first of those six would come just two days later, against Lake Orion. The game would prove much easier than the Central game; in addition to being twelve minutes shorter, it also was easier on the fans' fingernails in the closing seconds.
Abram had 23 points, 10 boards and six assists to lead Northern to a 64-55 win. With the victory, the Huskies improved to 18-4 and garnered the district championship for the second straight year. They also moved on to a matchup with nemesis No. 2.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, Northern will face Clarkston in a regional semifinal at Holly, with the championship game to follow at 7 p.m. on Friday.
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Abram was not the only U-M signee to advance to the regionals. Graham Brown, a 6-9 center/power forward, helped his Mio (Mich.) High School team remain undefeated with a pair of victories in a successful run to a district title.
After opening the tourney with a win over Twining Arenac Eastern, Mio made quick work of Hale in its next game, on March 6. Brown (right) scored 25 points to lead all scorers as the Thunderbolts coasted to a 62-33 win.
Two days later, Mio again won going away, claiming the district tournament championship with a 52-33 defeat of Fairview.
Next up for the 23-0 Thunderbolts are the regionals at Gaylord. At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, they face Leland. The regional championship is scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 14.
Michigan Preps recently named Brown the Class D MVP. "The Michigan-signee has put up Shaq-like numbers, despite often playing limited minutes as Mio dominates the competition," the article stated. "Simply too big and strong for high school kids to check."
Check back on Monday for news on the progress of some of the Michigan's top junior targets, as well as the latest on U-M point guard signee Daniel Horton, whose senior season ended a week ago when his Cedar Hill (Texas) High School team was upset by Midfield Lee.
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