After the Lumen Christi boys basketball team knocked off Columbia Central to win a district championship, Titan coach Rich Karasek reflected on his squad.
“These guys have been playing together for a long time,” Karasek said after that 69-61 win. “This is a very, very special basketball team and I think people are starting to realize that.”
The Titans hosted this year’s Class B regional matchups and Monday night they easily dispatched an outmanned Olivet team 75-28. But Wednesday night was a different story.
Wednesday night Lumen Christi looked across the gym at one of the premier powers in the state, regardless of class. Standing in the Titans path of a first regional championship in over 20 years was a Big Red squad whose physical stature matched their nickname.
Sexton’s front line looked like something you might find at the college level. They featured 6’10 sophomore Trevor Manuel (one of the most highly recruited talents in the Midwest); silky smooth 6’7 senior Jalen Hayes, who has committed to play for Oakland University next year, and 6’5 junior Austin Johnson. The two-time defending Class B state champions also featured 6’2 senior, and former Jackson Viking, Jeremy Williamson.
The Titans, just as they have all year, scoffed at any size disadvantage and instead attacked and played their game. The result was a remarkable 57-52 victory and a Class B regional championship trophy.
In a game of tremendous runs, Lumen Christi withstood a third quarter Sexton onslaught and claimed the trophy with a fourth quarter barrage of their own.
“We knew they would come out after halftime and take it to us,” Titan sophomore guard Khari Willis said. “We had to just kind of hang in there, stick to our game and take it back. That’s what we did.”
After Sexton took a 13-10 first quarter lead, the Titan frontcourt combination of Matt Bullinger and Alex Potter combined for 20 of 21 second quarter points to stun the Big Red faithful and put LC up 31-22 at the break.
In the third, however, it was Lansing Sexton’s turn to take charge – and they certainly did. Powered by the all-around skills of Hayes (a game-high 27 points and 10 rebounds) and Manuel (11 points) the Big Red outscored the Titans 23-5 in the third quarter to open up an eight point lead heading into the fourth. Lumen Christi’s lead was wiped out by a rejuvenated, attacking Sexton team that scratched and clawed on defense and controlled the glass. The big play was a one-handed power slam by Manuel on a break that brought the Sexton crowd (and bench) to their feet.
In the fourth quarter the Titans hit the reset button and went back to work.
Matt Bullinger, who led Lumen Christi with 18 points, nailed a pair of long three-pointers to help the Titans scratch and crawl back in it. They missed their first six three pointers on the night, but buried all four they attempted in the fourth quarter.
“This win was all about our team,” Bullinger said. “We knew their big men would be trouble but we had to do our thing and play our game. We had to play hard, force them to run and hit our outside shots.”
When asked what the Regional Championship means, Bullinger smiled and shook his head.
“This team just brings that effort and energy every night,” he said. “We’ve done it all year, we did it tonight and we’ll do it when we get to Chelsea for our next game. We knew we had to help out on defense and stay in front of their big guys. If you don’t stay in front of them down low they’ll kill you.”
As the game stayed close deep into the fourth quarter, it was the most basic of mental mistakes that may have ultimately tipped the scales in the Titans favor.
Working with a three point lead in the closing moments, Titan senior guard Amani Bass was fouled and went to the free throw line. He missed the first attempt and Sexton’s Manuel, apparently not realizing the Titans were in the double bonus and thus Bass was automatically due two shots, got a little too physical when chasing down the rebound and picked up a costly technical foul.
Bass, who finished with 11 points and earlier nailed a pair of big three pointers, calmly sank the second free throw and then gave way to Bullinger (7 for 7 from the line on the night) who hit the technical. The strange sequence of events put Lumen Christi up six in the closing seconds, and the Big Reds’ champion reign was finished.
“This win is all about the team,” Bass said. “We knew it would be a battle but we’d be okay if we just played our game and helped each other out on defense.”
And so the Titans (21-3) stared down their biggest challenge of the postseason, and maybe the regular season as well. They hadn’t played anyone all year with the championship pedigree of the Big Reds, who finished 16-7 and saw their seven game winning streak snapped.
When you’re climbing the post-season ladder, however, there isn’t much time to celebrate or bask in a victory, even one over twenty years in the making. Next up is a date with Detroit Community (16-9) on Tuesday night in Chelsea.
“We have a twenty-four hour rule,” Willis said. “We’ll let this one soak in a little bit and then get back after it.”
They’ll get back after it on Tuesday night at Chelsea High School at 6:30 – one of only eight teams still standing in Class B. As this Titans team continues to climb the ladder – shrugging off teams loaded with D1 recruits and flashier accolades – they’ll focus on themselves and what they do.
After all, as Lansing Sexton found out, they’re very good at it.