By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Jason Whitens held two fingers up as he moved through his teammates to the handshake line after Saturday morning’s Class D Final.
Their reaction to winning a second straight MHSAA championship was of course filled with celebration – but also respect.
The Jets are in the midst of one of the most impressive runs in Michigan high school basketball history. And they had just withstood one of their few tests of the 2015-16 season.
North Central won its 55th straight game Saturday morning, 59-48 over Waterford Our Lady to claim a second straight championship at the Breslin Center – but after breaking away when the Lakers trailed by four with only four minutes to play.
“They were playing harder than us, to be honest. We kinda got lazy, and they came out and wanted to hit us in the mouth,” North Central junior guard Jason Whitens said. “We took their shot, and we’ve taken shots all year. We just had to take it in and battle back. But they moved the ball real well, (Andrew) Kline’s a great player, and it’s just a great team over there.”
And a growing legendary one from the small village, with a school enrollment of 122, located west of Escanaba at the crossroads of U.S 2 and 41 on the southern end of the Upper Peninsula.
The Jets finished 28-0, which with last season's 27-0 record ties them for the most wins, 55, of any team over two seasons.
And not to move on too quickly from the repeat celebration – but there’s suddenly a lot more to look forward to next season as well.
North Central now stands tied with Saginaw Buena Vista’s 1992-94 teams for the fourth longest winning streak in MHSAA boys basketball history. The record is 65 straight set by Chassell’s teams from 1956-59.
Five programs have won three straight championships during the 90 years of the Class D Finals. And the Jets would seem to be favored to become the sixth with Whitens, starters Dawson Bilski and Bobby Kleiman and up to 12 players total expected to return.
But along the way, Our Lady (22-5) was one of the most formidable opponents North Central faced this season – and provided a genuine scare into the fourth quarter.
The Jets opened the second half on a 13-3 run to build an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter. But with seniors Andrew Kline and Devin Senerius mostly taking turns getting to the basket, Our Lady went on a 23-9 run to cut the deficit to 49-45 with 5:24 left.
“We knew they were going to have a lot of confidence coming into the game. They were blowing out everyone; they won by 40 in the semis,” Kline said. “Coach kept telling us they have all the pressure on them. No one was expecting us to come out and win the game. We knew if we just did our thing, played them tough, we had a chance. We had nothing to really be nervous about.”
“That’s the biggest run somebody’s gone on us in a while, so I was interested in seeing how our kids were going to handle it coming out for the fourth quarter,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said.
The Jets did so not relying on Whitens, their leading scorer at 22 points per game, but by spreading the offense. Six players scored down the stretch as North Central finished on a 10-3 run started on a basket by senior Morgan Cox and a 3-pointer by junior Marcus Krachinski.
“Morgan’s basket was huge. We got a steal in there, I think too. And we executed some plays – my kids were probably shocked. I don’t call many plays,” Mercier said. “Their mental focus was great to start that fourth quarter. They understood that this (Our Lady) team was a very good team. I know we were favorites and everything, but anytime you’ve got a state finalist in football, they’re going to be kids that don’t back down from anybody.”
Actually, both teams playing Saturday morning were football finalists – Our Lady was the Division 8 runner-up for 11-player with Clay and Devin Senerius playing starring roles, and North Central won the 8-player championship with Whitens finishing the fall with 45 touchdown passes without an interception.
And they matched athletes well. North Central shot better, and especially from long range making 9 of 18 3-point attempts. But Our Lady had more rebounds (35-27) and only 12 turnovers to the Jets’ eight.
“We knew coming into it that it wasn’t a team we were going to beat probably best of seven. But we thought that we could take advantage of some of their personality,” Our Lady coach Paul Robak said. “They’re a team that scores 80 points a game, and they want to win by 50. They don’t want to win by 10. And we thought we could use that against them possibly if we could get them to play a style that maybe they aren’t as comfortable with. … We did some of the things that I thought were going to be key.”
Kline led Our Lady with 22 points, four assists and three steals. Devin Senerius added 17 points and nine rebounds.
Whitens had 16 points and seven rebounds. Bilski added 15 points, three assists and four steals and senior Troy Ekberg had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Our Lady ended up as one of three teams to come within 12 points of North Central this winter. The Jets had beaten teams by an average of 34 points entering Saturday, with only Class B Menominee and rival Crystal Falls Forest Park coming closer; Menominee fell by 12 and four, and Forest Park also lost by only four to go with defeats of 14 and 30.
“This year we had a couple blowouts, and they’re still fun,” Bilski said. “But being together having close games, it shows who we are and if we’ll fall apart or not. As you can see, we didn’t fall apart tonight.“
Click for the full box score.
The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central players celebrate their second straight Class D championship. (Middle) The Jets’ Troy Ekberg works to stay in front of Our Lady’s Andrew Kline.