By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s victory celebration had a championship feel Friday night.
The Cougars hadn’t locked down their first MHSAA boys basketball title yet. But it was impossible to not understand their heightened excitement.
Leading from start to finish, GRCC eliminated New Haven with a 69-53 Class B Semifinal win at the Breslin Center, in the process ending the reigning champion’s 52-game winning streak.
And if that was at all a surprise, how the Cougars got there was just as stunning.
Junior guard Austin Braun, carrying a 7.8 points-per-game average heading into the week, scored 31 while Mr. Basketball finalist Marcus Bingham, Jr., watched the final five minutes from the bench after fouling out.
“I got a couple buckets early and my teammates just really got me going, just getting me hyped on the bench,” Braun said, “and just telling me, ‘If they don’t stop you, just score the ball.’
“It helps when you have two bigs and Darrell (Belcher) and Devin (Boyd) were great players around me. It just opens up a lot for me.”
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (24-2) will play for that first championship against Benton Harbor at 6:45 p.m. Saturday in the final game of this boys basketball season.
Those bigs – the 6-foot-11 Bingham and 6-8 senior Jacob Polakovich – were plenty effective in a number of ways Friday.
Bingham had 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Polakovich had eight points and eight rebounds. But their larger impact came defensively. Bingham had six blocks, and together the tandem played a significant role in New Haven’s 30-percent shooting from the floor.
The Rockets’ 6-7 junior star Romeo Weems put together a solid line with 20 points, eight rebounds and seven steals. But even he was off his usual sharpness, making only 7 of 25 shots from the floor.
New Haven (26-1) as a team entered the week making 49 percent of its shots, with Weems connecting on 53 percent.
“We adjusted our shots. We saw it on film and we went to attack them,” New Haven coach Tedaro France II said. “We wanted to jump stop and pump fake. (But) they changed our shot selection a lot, disrupted our shots in the paint with some of their size.”
Braun, meanwhile, was just about perfect offensively. He made 8 of 9 shots from the floor, including his lone 3-point try, and 14 of 16 free throw attempts. He also had three assists and three steals.
The first of those steals came between buckets as he scored the game’s first four points. The free throw shooting came in handy at the end, as Braun drilled nine over the final five minutes to help the Cougars extend an 11-point lead to 18 after Bingham’s night was done.
“I knew he could score like that,” Polakovich said. “It’s just always been a matter of having a lot of mismatches inside with me and Marcus and being able to crash. … (But) a lot of people don’t realize he’s capable of doing that every single night. He’s a lot more than just a really great passer.”
Bingham did finish with 11 points despite a tough 3-of-11 shooting night as well, and grabbed 13 rebounds with six blocked shots. Weems was followed by senior guard Tavares Oliver, Jr., with 15 points and senior forward Ashton Sherrell with 12 points and seven rebounds.
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PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Marcus Bingham, Jr., gets a hand on Romeo Weems’ shot Friday at the Breslin Center. (Middle) GRCC’s Austin Braun puts up a shot with Ronald Jeffrey III defending.