A team doesn’t win five consecutive district titles without a great deal of depth within its program.
Friday night, Kalamazoo Central showed just how dangerous its depth can be.
After a slow opening quarter from the Giants’ starting lineup, the bench carried Kalamazoo Central to its fifth-straight Class A district crown, beating Portage Central 61-39. The bench outscored the starters 34-27 – and that’s with a game-high 13 points from starter Trevon Gunter.
The Giants now move on to the regional semifinals Monday against East Lansing at Battle Creek Lakeview High School.
“Lately, we’ve just been having some slow starts, a little sluggish. I don’t know what it is,” said Kalamazoo Central head coach Ramsey Nichols. “Our bench, I’ve been trusting them the last few games, and they really showed up tonight. That’s what we’ve emphasized all year is that we can come at people in waves. They played so well, I just stuck with them.”
Portage Central (10-12) opened the game with an 11-5 lead in the first quarter, thanks in part to three three-pointers, and some tough man-to-man defense that had the Kalamazoo Central (19-2) offense stymied. Jadakiss Lewis scored seven points in the second quarter, and Alika Edmonds scored six to help Kalamazoo Central turn the tide, and take a 25-22 lead into the half.
In the third quarter, the bench took over for the Giants, scoring 10 points as the Giants outscored Portage Central 19-8 in the quarter.
Photos by Chris Carpenter
“We went into halftime down three, and at halftime, coach was talking about how we needed to come out with that fire and hit him before they hit us,” said Gunter.
Gunter played a key role in that third quarter as well, scoring seven of his 13 points.
“After a couple shots went in, I felt like I had to carry the team on my shoulders to help us get that extra boost,” Gunter said.
It worked. As the Giants built the lead, Nichols stuck with the bench, which played a heavy majority of the second-half minutes. In the fourth quarter, the bench accounted for 16 of Kalamazoo Central’s 17 points.
“The bench was playing very well,” said senior Darius Pruitt. “It’s always ‘next man up.’ They kept playing well, and the lead got higher and higher. The bench won us the game tonight.”
Multiple players made their presence felt off the bench, starting with senior Nick Hill, who had 11 points.
“He’s what we call our ‘X factor,’” Nichols said. “He comes in, he hustles, goes after rebounds, does all the things that may not show up in the scouting report all the time, but he just wills his team.”
Alika Edmonds added nine points off the bench, while Mohamed Kamara pitched in with seven points, and played a significant role in crashing the offensive glass – something the Giants struggled with in the first half.
“Mohamed is a very strong player, and makes good decisions with the basketball,” Nichols said. “He can go inside and rebound. It’s a luxury to have guys like that off the bench.”
Early on, Portage Central dominated the boards, and it was essentially one-and-done for the Giants on the offensive end. That changed over the course of the night, and Kalamazoo Central ended up with the slight edge in rebounds, 24-23.
“We always emphasize the offensive glass,” Nichols said. “The problem is, we weren’t getting good shots. Once we started to get quality shots, we were in good position to rebound.”
Defensively, Kalamazoo Central was consistent the entire night. That effort was ratcheted up whenever the Giants converted on offense, giving them the opportunity to press off of the inbound pass. Portage Central was never able to find a consistent way to beat the press and run its offense.
“Their man press kept us out of our offense that entire first half,” Mustangs coach Ray Robinson said. “[Luke] Leto hit some great shots, but it wasn’t within the framework of the offense. Offense like that is only going to last so long. It showed up on the scoreboard. We never really got into that offense.”
Leto led all scorers with 17 points, thanks in part to three three-pointers. He also hauled in five rebounds.
“He plays with so much energy. Tonight, he’s guarding their most athletic player as a freshman – what more can you ask for?” Robinson said. “There are no words to describe Luke Leto. He just works hard. There’s not much he can’t do in the game of basketball.”
After opening up with an 11-5 lead, Robinson said he felt his team may have let up a bit when the Giants went to their bench.
“The message to my guys – everything we asked you to do against their starters, you manned up and did it,” Robinson said. “When the bench came in, you took a sigh of relief and lost your intensity and focus on what your job was.”
For the Giants, their focus shifts to the regional round, where they start with a matchup against East Lansing (20-3) on Monday. As for intensity, the Giants know they will need to be stronger out of the gate, rather than relying on its ability to overcome slow starts.
“We always get out to slow starts and try to fight back,” said Darius Pruitt. “Going into regionals, we can’t do that. We have to come out and throw the first punch and have energy coming out – we can’t wait.”
For now, the Giants will enjoy their fifth-straight district crown. After losing so much of its core last season, this one was a little unexpected from Kalamazoo Central, which to some, makes it a little sweeter.
“It feels good,” said Trevon Gunter. “A lot of people before the season said we couldn’t be district champs again because we lost eight seniors last year. Proving all the haters wrong, that’s a confidence boost.”
Kalamazoo Central 5 20 19 17 — 61
Portage Central 11 11 8 9 — 39
Darius Pruitt – 3 points
Dayvion Smith – 3 points
Ryan Halloran – 4 points
Jadakiss Lewis – 8 points
Nick Hill – 11 points
Mohamed Kamara – 7 points
Luis Paz – 3 points
Trevon Gunter – 13 points
Alika Edmonds – 9 points
Smith Moore – 1 point
Griffin Baker – 1 point
Eli Potts – 7 points
Jason Mih – 2 points
Luke Leto – 17 points, 5 rebounds
Max Godsil – 6 points
Max Longman – 11 rebounds, 5 points
Check back soon for more photos from the game.