Throughout the Class A district playoffs, the Kalamazoo Central boys basketball team was able to rely on its athleticism and depth to overcome consistently slow starts.
The Giants got off to a slow start again during Monday’s regional semifinal at Battle Creek Lakeview. And this time, they ran into a team that wouldn’t let them off the hook.
East Lansing used a 17-4 first quarter advantage as a launching point, leading to a 70-37 win to advance to the regional final, and end the Giants’ season at 19-3.
“They came out with more fight,” said senior Darius Pruitt. “We came out slow. You can’t come out slow in regionals. We should have worked that out in districts. Unfortunately, we didn’t.”
East Lansing was led by a pair of post players, who were dominant in the paint at both ends. Ben Zeka and Brandon Johns, standing at 6’7” and 6’9”, respectively, were key contributors offensively. Zeka led East Lansing with 13 points while Johns added 11 points.
But it was their presence defensively – particularly by blocking shots – that seemed to disrupt Kalamazoo Central’s offense from the outset.
“When we moved the ball like we’re supposed to and got to the middle of their zone, we had some success,” said Kalamazoo Central coach Ramsey Nichols. “When we didn’t do that, of course it’s going to be challenging with bigs back there waiting.”
The Giants were without a single scorer in double figures, as Jadakiss Lewis led the team with eight points. Justin Davis pitched in six points, and Ryan Rugano had five points off the bench.
“We just came out slow, we expected them to lay down for us, and they didn’t do that,” said Pruitt of the team’s offensive struggles. “We just didn’t come out and execute like we had been doing all season.”
The Giants were somewhat of a surprise all season, as the departure of nine seniors from a year ago tampered expectations of the consistently strong program. Yet Kalamazoo Central continued to roll along, winning the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East Division, without so much as a single conference loss. Then, the Giants rolled through the district round, capturing the program’s fifth-consecutive district crown.
For the five seniors who played their last game at Kalamazoo Central, this tournament run showed that they wouldn’t be the ones to let the program get off course.
“They’ve done an excellent job,” Nichols said. “Nobody thought we’d be here. Nobody would have thought we’d make it through the district, losing [nine] seniors to graduation. Our seniors did a great job at leading this year, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Even while feeling the sting of a season-ending loss, one of those seniors could still appreciate what the group has accomplished.
“I’ll never forget this team,” said Pruitt. “It was a fun season. We had a lot of fun this year. We only lost three games. It’s not like we had a bad season. It’s nothing we should be down about.”
Along with Pruitt and Rugano, Ryan Halloran, Nick Hill and Luis Paz played their final game on Monday. That leaves the Giants with a lot more returning players than what they had going into the 2017-18 season.
And it leaves with those within the program high expectations looking into the near future.
“My young guys got a plethora of experience this year in big games,” Nichols said. “A lot of them played today. The future is bright for us. We’ve got a core group of guys coming back. We’ll get to work after the spring break and look forward to next season.”
“The program will never go down,” added Pruitt. “Lots of kids with a lot of confidence; next year, they’ll be real good.”
Kalamazoo Central 4 10 10 13 — 37
East Lansing 17 12 13 28 — 70
Ryan Halloran – 4 points
Ryan Rugano – 5 points
Jadakiss Lewis – 8 points
Nick Hill – 2 points
Luis Paz – 3 points
Justin Davis – 6 points
Trevon Gunter – 5 points
Alika Edmonds – 2 points
Faylin Goodwin – 2 points
Marcus Wourman Jr. – 10 points
Malik Jones – 7 points
Andrew Wells – 5 points
Jack Morse – 11 points
Brandon Johns – 11 points
Noah Schon -3 points
Casey Ring – 2 points
Justin McAbee – 4 points
Jonathan Armstead-Wilkerson – 2 points
Ben Zeka – 13 points
Nick Beekman – 2 points