By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Had the final second of Thursday’s Class C Semifinal ended differently, Shaun McKinney surely would’ve felt worse about three lay-ins he missed during the game’s first 31 minutes.
Good thing he got one more chance to score the most meaningful points in Laingsburg basketball history.
With two tenths of a second remaining, the Wolfpack senior banked a layup from the left side of the glass to cement himself in Michigan hoops history – and send his team to its first MHSAA championship game.
McKinney’s make gave Laingsburg a 45-43 victory in front of what had to be most of the residents of his small town located just 15 miles northeast of the Breslin Center, and set his neighbors up for a return visit Saturday when the Wolfpack faces reigning champion Flint Beecher at 4:30 p.m..
“I was just saving them,” McKinney said of his early misses. “I knew it was going to come down to the last one. I had to make sure I saved one.”
The shot was described after as “legendary” and one “to remember” by those who played a part. And McKinney’s focus in that brief moment was laudable.
But he also was the end recipient of two more heads-up plays by senior teammates Jake Zielinski and Zach Walker.
With the score tied 50-50 and 52 seconds left, Zielinski made a bit of an overly-aggressive decision. He tried to take on three defenders in the Negaunee lane and had his shot blocked by Miners senior Andrew Katona.
But Zielinski would get another chance.
During a Negaunee timeout with 30 seconds left, Wolfpack coach Greg Mitchell reminded his players they had a foul to give and told them to keep the pressure high. And if one grabbed a rebound or made a steal, the rest should “just go” to the basket, he said. “I would’ve sent seven guys if I could have.”
Negaunee did get off a final shot with nine seconds to play. But the rebound fell right to Zielinski below the basket, and after a few dribbles he fired a near-fullcourt football pass down the right side of the floor to a streaking Walker.
“Just don’t overthrow it. Just give them a chance to make a play,” Zielinski recalled of his thought as he threw.
Walker couldn’t corral the pass in the air – but did grab it off the first bounce. As he began sailing out of bounds, Walker fired the ball back to McKinney, who scored the last and most important of his 16 points. (Click to watch the game's final minute.)
“Obviously, you think as a coach that you’re in a position that you want to be in, 39 seconds and you have the ball in a tie game. But it just didn’t work out for us,” Negaunee coach Michael O’Donnell said. “As a coach, it’s tough. There’s not much you can say in the locker room. After a fun, exciting, successful season, there’s not a whole lot you can say.”
Aside from the final second, the teams battled to nearly a statistical draw.
Both shot between 35-37 percent from the floor and finished with one rebound and one turnover of each other's totals.
Laingsburg (24-2) led most of the game, but didn’t open up its largest advantage of six until sophomore Ryan Wade hit a 3-pointer with 2:32 remaining. Negaunee senior Tanner Uren scored five points and junior guard Tyler Jandron also drained a 3-pointer to pull the score back even heading into the final minute.
“Coming out, it definitely was a bigger stage than we thought it was going to be,” Uren said. “But by halftime, all of those jitters were gone, and after we came out (for the third quarter), we finally played our game. We said, we’re going to get back in it.”
Zielinski led the Wolfpack with 18 points and eight rebounds, and McKinney had four steals. Uren had 16 points and nine rebounds to lead Negaunee, and Jandron added 12 points and four assists.
The Miners, ranked No. 3 entering the tournament, finished 24-2.
Click for a full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Laingsburg's Shaun McKinney scores two of his 16 points in Thursday's Semifinal. (Middle) Laingsburg's Zach Walker (12) looks for a teammate as Negaunee's Tyler Jandron defends. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)