Class D regional semifinal: He’s (not) a freshman: Whitens leads Jets past Munising with clutch 3-pointer

ESCANABA – He’s a freshman *clap clap, clapclapclap* He’s a freshman *clap clap, *clapclapclap*

No. Jason Whitens was a lot of things during North Central’s 54-46 overtime victory over Munising in Monday night’s Class D regional semifinal, but a freshman was not one of them.

Freshmen make mistakes, freshmen panic when the ball is in their hands, your team down by three and 15 seconds to go. Freshmen don’t make a step-back game-tying three-pointer, under immense pressure, in front of a packed house, to send the game to overtime.

What Jason Whitens was Monday night, more than anything, was clutch. Ice in his veins, clutch.

“There’s not a lot going through your mind there besides, I need to make this, and it just went in,” said Whitens of the shot that saved North Central’s season.

And that’s no understatement.

The Mustangs led 35-30 going into the fourth quarter, having wrestled control of the momentum with a 5-0 run. For Munising, so the adage goes, it might as well have been a 15 point lead.

But North Central stormed back with three points from Rob Granquist on a free throw and fade-away jumper, followed by an 18-footer from Whitens. But the see-saw continued to go back and forth.

At about the two minute mark, the game was tied at 39 and Whitens was at the line having made two pressure-packed foul shots a minute earlier. He made one of two giving the Jets a one point lead. On the other end, Trevor Ekberg came up with a big block and the Jets came storming down the court, but came up short.

Munising drained the clock down and got the ball to Ben Stasewich who made life very difficult for the Jets all game, and he hit a big shot to give the Mustangs a 41-40 advantage. The Jets then missed on a three attempts on their next possession, and had to quickly foul twice to get into the bonus with time ticking away.

Colin Immel stepped to the line for Munising, having been held scoreless the entire game, but he sunk both shots under enormous pressure, and North Central’s season came down to 15 seconds.

Whitens was covered to perfection by Immel on his three point shot, that he faked, and then adjusted before launching a seemingly off-balance prayer, that ended up being nothing but net.

“It was an explosion of emotion. There’s no other way I can put it,” said Ekberg of the play. “It was a drawn up play for either (Whitens) or me to shoot it, and I’m glad he shot it and made it.”

Even after that, Munising still had a shot in regulation as Austin Kelto received the ball in open space and tore down court with Whitens defending him. There was a collision as Kelto went up for the shot, but no foul was called and the buzzer sounded, ending regulation.

Munising (19-4) had possession with one minute to go in the fourth quarter, down by one point, but Mustangs head coach Dan Waterman said he didn’t consider holding the ball for one shot to win it.

“We were down by only one with a minute to go and we had to continue to be aggressive, because we tried to run it down in each and every quarter and they poked balls away from us in two of those first three quarters. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to continue to attack,” said Waterman. “I thought we had a better chance of scoring going to the rim versus putting it on the free throw line, and we did. We scored a bucket, then got up by three.”

Waterman amounted Whitens’ shot to a players simply making a play.

“You have to give the Whitens kid credit. He hit a huge shot with a guy draped all over him,” he said. “Their season’s on the line, and that’s a freshman taking that shot, and he stepped up big time. You have to tip your hat, he made a play.”

Whitens said it was a situation he’s practiced.

“When I go to the gym and work out, I work with a guy on me at all times and I just got the shot off,” he said. “It was the most difficult shot of my life, but we work on tough shots like that.”

In overtime, Munising struck first when Garrett Blank drew a foul and made one of two free throws. Ekberg, who scored 11 points in the game, answered for North Central on the other end. Blank was fouled again on Munising’s next possession and made both free throws, and that would be the Mustangs final points of the game.

The Jets ended the overtime period on a 9-0 run, making 7-of-10 free throws.

“We missed a big defensive rebound off a missed free throw with the score tied at 46 at that point, and they regained possession,” said Waterman. “We fouled them, they made both free throws, we came down and missed, and they came down and scored again. It was a four point game with roughly two minutes to go. That totally changes the complexion of the game. The game literally turned in that instant.”

The Jets navigated a couple tough blows during the game. Rob Granquist was slapped with two fouls in the first three minutes of the game and sat for a good while. But directly after that happened, Josh Granquist came up with a steal and a layup.

The Jets scored just seven points in the second quarter, but Munising only scored three. Jason Whitens scored the first points of the quarter at the 3:21 mark. Ekberg hit a triple to break the tie, and Noah Ackerman answered with a 3-pointer for Munising. But with the Mustangs holding the ball at the end of the half, Tyler Polfus came up with a big steal and layup at the other end, beating the buzzer.

Skyline and Central U.P. Conference MVP Travis Vincent was shut down offensively by Ben Stasewich plus help, and held to two points, but Vincent still came up big in the game.

The Jets had no answer for Stasewich in the first half, as Kelto and crew found him repeatedly in the paint. He had 10 points at the half, but finished with 18 and was slowed down the stretch by Vincent.

“In the second half, he did a great job,” said Jets coach Adam Mercier of Vincent. “He took a huge charge, the first charge of the year for Travis Vincent and hats off to him for taking it, and he just shut down the middle at times during the game. It’s not about personal accolades for this team, it’s about team success, and you have to have some personal sacrifice to have have team success, and all the guys are buying into it.”

Many teams try to force the tempo on Munising, and many teams fail to do so. Mercier gave credit tot he Mustangs defense.

“They’re so fast, athletic, physical and well coached. They’re just the best defensive ball club that we play all year. Hats off to them,” he said. “They prepared for us really hard. They know what’s coming every time. I have so much respect for that team. They make us a better team by us playing them twice a year.”

Though his Jets seemingly kept their cool down the stretch and made the plays to win, Mercier rejected the notion that his team wanted it more.

“I don’t think so. The Munising kids are competitive, you can tell. They’re grinders,” he said. “They wanted it just as bad as us. We made just enough plays there at the end to win, but nothing that Munising should be ashamed of. They played their hearts out, just like our kids.”

North Central (24-0) will move on to face Forest Park in Wednesday’s regional final. The Trojans (20-3) defeated Lake Linden-Hubbell 75-60 in the first game Monday night. Wednesday’s tip off is at 7 p.m.