EAST LANSING — Ann Arbor Huron head coach Waleed Samaha knew he was going to have his hands full Thursday with Warren De La Salle Collegiate in a Division 1 Semifinal matchup at the Breslin Center.
De La Salle head coach Gjon Djokaj knew Samaha’s team almost as well as the River Rats coach himself.
“Gjon is a hell of a coach,” Samaha said. “He’s really like family with our guys. He coaches some of them in the offseason, in AAU.”
That’s true. Djokaj coaches Huron seniors Devin Womack and Julian Lewis and he often coaches against seniors Kingsley Perkins and Tyson Edmondson on the circuit.
“I’m very familiar with this team,” Djokaj said. “They’re actually like family to me. I knew these guys inside and out.”
Despite knowing all of the questions before the test, Djokaj’s Pilots had troubles containing the River Rats, inside and out, as Huron played stellar defense in a 55-39 victory over De La Salle.
Edmondson scored 18 points, hitting four 3-pointers, and Kingsley dominated down low, scoring 13 points while pulling down eight rebounds.
“It’s pretty difficult,” said Edmondson, talking about how tough it is to cover the River Rats’ inside-outside game. “We have threats outside and inside. We’ve played together so much that we know where we’re going to be and what we’re going to do. We’re like a well-oiled machine.”
The two teams battled back and forth for much of the first half, with Huron leading 19-15 at the break. The River Rats extended their lead to six points after three quarters, and then used a 9-3 run to open the fourth quarter — all but putting an end to the game. Perkins had a pair of putbacks during the run, which was capped off by a 24-foot 3-pointer by Edmondson, making it a 42-30 ball game.
“I had the confidence from my team and when I was open, I was hitting my shots,” Edmondson said. “I take those (long) shots in practice and I tell ya, practice makes perfect. It really does convert to the game.”
De La Salle senior guard Linden Holder led all scorers with 19 points. His drive to the basket and long 3-pointer gave his team an early 9-4 lead. But it was short-lived. Huron used a 9-0 run at the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter to move ahead 13-9. The River Rats would not relinquish that lead.
“They are a physical presence at every spot,” Djokaj said of the River Rats. “They’re obviously no stranger to the weight room. They’re tough and physical and this was the type of game where (the officials) didn’t make a lot of calls and let us play both ways. Typically we like that style, but today it didn’t work out well for us.”
De La Salle entered the game averaging nearly 61 points per contest. Huron, known for its defense, was allowing just 36 per game. The River Rats dictated the tempo that has worked for them all season long.
“We knew if we could stay patient and run the play, run the clock, we might get that open layup or that open 3,” Samaha said. “We had our key guys making key plays in key moments. They played hard, and tonight we made a few more shots and hung on defensively
“I’m really proud of our guys. We’ve been preparing really hard for this moment. The kids really stepped up to the opportunity that they had.”
Senior Brandon Rawls had 10 points and six rebounds for Huron (20-0), which will advance to Saturday’s Division 1 championship game.
Sophomore Nino Smith had 10 points and sophomore Michael Sulaka added six for De La Salle (14-4), which will lose just three players to graduation.
“Ann Arbor Huron, in my opinion, is the best team in the state,” Djokaj said. “They’re just so versatile and dynamic in a lot of ways, positionally, so sound at point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center. They bring physicality, they bring togetherness and toughness. They’re a great example of what a rock-solid team looks like.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Huron's Devin Womack (3) defends against De La Salle's Nino Smith during Thursday's Semifinal at Breslin Center. (Middle) Huron's Brandon Rawls gets up a shot in the paint. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)