Holding on with white knuckles, Sturgis’ boys basketball team escaped a late Vicksburg 3-point bombardment for a 52-49 victory Wednesday in the Class B district semifinals.
The Trojans play Edwardsburg, a team that has the same blueprint as Vicksburg, Friday in the finals at Three Rivers High School.
“They call it March Madness for a reason,” Sturgis coach Keith Kurowski said. “It’s survive and advance, and that’s exactly what we did tonight.”
Following an Andrew Airgood steal and score in transition, and a pair of free throws by Chance Stewart, who put in a game-high 22 points, Sturgis led by 10 with six minutes to play in the game.
That’s about the time Vicksburg made it very clear it was going to try to slide all its chips past the 3-point line. The Bulldogs connected on three from long range to make it a five-point contest with less than four minutes left.
A little rattled, Chance Stewart was called for a travel and an offensive foul at midcourt, but he made a pair of free throws in between to keep the pressure on Vicksburg. Airgood split a pair at the stripe before Vicksburg popped for two more treys.
Tristen Stewart, who finished with nine points, made both with 1:02 remaining to keep Sturgis out front 47-42.
“It’s about time he starts playing like that,” Chance Stewart said in jest. “I’ve seen him play basketball like that his whole life. All of the sudden the 21st game he wants to start playing like that. It was huge; what a lift for us. We’re going to need that Friday.”
But it was a press break that was the play that kept Sturgis’ hopes for a fourth straight district title alive.
Jack Scheske, who notched 14 points, expected a foul as he darted down the left sideline after the Trojans advanced the ball beyond midcourt just in time. Instead, he found Ryan Schuller cutting to the basket without a defender in sight. Schuller threw down a two-handed jam with some attitude, and Sturgis was back up by seven.
“I caught it and I knew I was going straight up with this,” Schuller said. “I went up, flushed it, did the hip thrust through like everyone told me to at practice, and landed. Greatest feeling in the world.”
Video interviews with Scheske and Schuller
Vicksburg pulled up from long range again, but Bradley Spieldenner’s toe was on the line and it was counted as a two with 21 seconds on the clock.
Chance Stewart made one of two free throws before Mitchell Wilson was pure on another 3-pointer for Vicksburg that trimmed Sturgis’ lead to 50-47 with eight seconds left. Stewart was fouled on the inbound and missed both attempts at the line, with the Bulldogs collecting the rebound on the second.
Kurowski elected to intentionally foul and Caleb Kudary hit both free throws to make it a 50-49 game. With five seconds remaining, Stewart headed back to the line and made both to force Vicksburg to hit one last triple.
Barwegen got a good look just before the buzzer but the shot rimmed out.
“Credit Vicksburg,” Kurowski said, “they really came out, especially that second half, and they pressured us a little more with their defense and shot the ball extremely well.”
The Bulldogs finished 9-for-24 (37.5 percent) from deep and Kurowski couldn’t recall a time an opponent had made more than six against the Trojans in his six years with the program.
“Nine threes has got to be a record against us,” he said. “… That was a tremendous display of shooting.”
Sturgis had its own marksman that stretched Vicksburg’s defense.
A Scheske 3-pointer tied the game at 5-5 in the first quarter. Tristen Stewart knocked down a pull-up jumper and big brother converted an offensive rebound to point to give Sturgis a 9-7 lead going into the second frame.
Back-to-back triples by Scheske, who then had the right touch on a lob to Chance Stewart put Sturgis out front 19-9.
Vicksburg showed a sign of things to come with 3-pointers by Solomon Barwegen on consecutive possessions to make it a six-point game late in the second quarter, but Scheske was there to answer with yet another triple to push the Trojans’ advantage to 24-15 at the break.
Chance Stewart started the second half with a strong post move, but Sturgis still wasn’t able to close off the perimeter and Vicksburg connected from deep again to stay within two buckets.
Getting sloppy with the ball, the Trojans gave the Bulldogs a couple extra opportunities over the last 3:41 of the third frame. Kurowski emphasized getting the last shot and burning the final 40 or so seconds, but another turnover led to a Trae Williams layup just before the horn that cut the deficit to 32-25.
“I think we played ok on defense, but we probably need to get out on shooters more so it’s not so close next time,” Scheske said. “We missed a couple free throws — I had two that I missed that were pretty big. I think we match up well with Edwardsburg. They don’t have as much size as us, but they can all shoot the 3. … Our defense is going to have to tighten up.”
Schuller ended the night with four points and six rebounds, Chance Stewart had 11 boards and three assists, Tristen Stewart added two assists and a pair of boards and Lonnie Wright dished out two assists and grabbed two rebounds.
Scheske had four assists, Airgood posted two more and Matt Polzin secured a rebound for the Trojans, which shot 48.4 percent (15-for-31) from the field. They were 18-for-24 from the stripe, outscoring the Bulldogs by 10.