WAYLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Defending state champion Benton Harbor wasn’t on Unity Christian’s regular-season schedule this season, but it didn’t mean that the Crusaders weren’t looking forward to facing them again in the postseason.
Unity stormed out to a double-digit lead and staved off a second-half comeback by the Tigers to pull out a thrilling 63-54 win Thursday night in a Division 2 regional final in front of a sold-out crowd at Wayland High School.
The Crusaders (23-2) advance to Tuesday’s Division 2 quarterfinal against Grand Rapids South Christian at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix High School. The Sailors upset Catholic Central 64-62 in another regional final.
Unity suffered a disappointing loss to Benton Harbor (22-2) in last year’s regional semifinal and was poised for redemption.
“Last year we were down by two at the half and lost by 20, so we’ve been waiting all year for this,” said Unity senior guard Noah Wiswary, who finished with 11 points. “All year it’s been Benton Harbor, Benton Harbor, and we knew if we got to Benton Harbor then we had a chance and we came out here and gave it our all and got the win.”
Longtime coach Scott Soodsma was thrilled to avenge last year’s loss and continue the postseason journey.
“Obviously it’s a little special because they put us out last year,” he said. “I’m not sure a lot of people outside of those 14 kids thought they could do this, but they believed and they got it done tonight.”
Senior TJ VanKoevering led the Crusaders with 17 points.
“I don’t think anybody thought we were going to beat them tonight except for our fans and us,” VanKoevering said. “It’s just cool to come out and beat them like that. We played so hard, and it’s just so fun to beat them after playing them close last year.”
Unity raced out to a 33-14 advantage in the second quarter with stifling defense and timely outside shooting.
However, the Tigers ended the first half with an 11-2 spurt and trailed 35-25 at the half.
Benton Harbor continued its surge in the second half and tied it at 46-46 after a thunderous dunk by Justin Brown and an offensive rebound and putback by Carlos Johnson, who led all scorers with 20 points.
The Crusaders were unfazed by the Tigers’ rally and emerged from a timeout with a 7-0 spurt to regain the lead.
“I’m really proud of the composure we showed,” Soodsma said. “It’s been this team all year long. We get on a run and then we struggle a little bit, but I give all the credit to the kids. They held their composure and attacked.”
The Tigers wouldn’t get any closer as Unity knocked down late free throws to seal the victory.
“We just battle,” Wiswary said. “We have the best coach ever and he teaches us what to do and we just do it. Everyone on this team fights as hard as they can.”
Other regional title scores from Thursday night:
- South Christian beats Grand Rapids Catholic Central 64-62.
- Ludington beats Escanaba 49-32.
- Pewamo-Westphalia beats Calvin Christian 53-49.
- Cassopolis beats Schoolcraft 62-51.
- Tri-Unity Christian beats Muskegon Heights 62-53.
- Bellevue beats Pittsfor 42-28.