Defenders live up to their name

EAST LANSING, Mich. The Defenders lived up to their namesake. Tri-Unity Christian, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Class D poll for most of the season, proved why Thursday night in the MHSAA state semifinal at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.

Playing a tenacious and disciplined man-to-man defense for the full 32 minutes, Tri-Unity held North Central’s high-scoring offense in check and pulled away late for a 51-36 victory.

“We knew it would be a defensive battle coming in. That’s why their name is Defenders,” said North Central coach Adam Mercier. “They defend the ball well, they get a lot of steals off passes, they take away the middle. It took a while to adjust to the big floor as well”

The Jets (23-4) began the game with a triple on their first possession from Tyler Polfus and Rob Granquist later had a three-point play. Tri-Unity hit back-to-back buckets to end the quarter and led 14-8.

The Jets loosened up and looked more at ease in the second quarter as they chipped and grinded away. Trevor Ekberg powered his way in for consecutive layups and Travis Vincent followed with back-to-back shots of his own before hitting two free throws to complete a 6-0 run that gave North Central a 20-19 halftime lead.

But perhaps unbeknownst to the Jets, the Defenders had an extra level they had yet to reach and they certainly ramped it up in the second half. Their defense got a touch more aggressive to the point that shots simply stopped falling, at all for North Central and their turnovers increased.

“Part of it is, we were a lot more active in the passing lanes. Our defense is about not just being behind on man, but getting up and making adjustments and the guys did that really well,” said Tri-Unity coach Mark Keeler. “We got more steals in the second half as a result of it and that was a key getting up in the passing lanes and not letting them get good looks.

“North Central had some nice moves when they got the ball down low but we took that away from them and it looked like they floundered a bit.”

The Jets shot a respectable 44 percent in the first half but in the face of such machine-like defense, they shot just 12.5 percent (2-for-16) and had just one field goal in each of the third and fourth quarters.

Travis Vincent, who’s fade-away jumper worked to perfection nearly all season long, was shut-out in the second half and scored all six of his points in succession in the second quarter. Trevor Ekberg, who usually dishes out the blocks on opponents, had at least two of his shots blocked in the second half and finished with eight points. Rob Granquist was the Jets’ steadiest and most consistent scoring threat, scoring 13 points.

“They guarded my fade really well tonight. Joey (Blauwkamp) is a really good defensive player. He knew what I was going to do and just defended really well tonight,” said Vincent.

Added Mercier, “For Travis, he hasn’t gone up against a player with that much girth. (Blauwkamp) is a very physical player, and you don’t see those players that often, guarding Travis,” he said. “It was a good battle, and fun to watch, an All-State Class D Player of the Year going up against a player like Travis and Travis held his own. He held him scoreless in the first half and on the offensive end, he was being aggressive.”

What really seemed to turn the tables in the game, was a big third quarter buzzer jump shot from Blauwkamp with the score tied at 27-27. The shot sparked a 13-1 run for Tri-Unity that effectively put the game away.

“We were a little impatient on the offensive end and forced some shots that just weren’t there,” said Mercier of his team’s second-half offensive struggles. “You can’t do that against a good defensive club like Tri-Unity. There’s a reason why they only give up around 40 points a game against the competition they play. I thought our offense wasn’t efficient in the fourth quarter and it cost us that big lead that they got.

“It’s a little deflating, especially as we were struggling at the end of the third quarter as well. That (buzzer) shot at the end was a blow to us.”

Blauwkamp, held scoreless for the first half, finished with 10 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals while playing the full 32 minutes. Daniel Cole led the Defenders with 18 points, including going 11-for-12 from the free-throw line.

Mercier didn’t take anything away from Tri-Unity saying their defensive style was quite similar to Munising’s brand.

“Munising is a very good comparison but Tri-Unity had more girth with it as well,” he said. “It was fun to watch our kids battle with a team that’s highly renowned.”

Keeler, who is in his 26th season with Tri-Unity (25-2) will go for his fifth state title Saturday and says it never gets old for him.

“This is a different group of boys, but it’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “All year long they play their hearts out. I’m ecstatic. It’s fun watching them jump around like little boys when they win like that.”