Milan headed to state finals

Photo by Joel Dotson Milan’s Garrett Gardette shoots the game-winning free throw with 5.1 seconds left. The Big Reds defeated Detroit Douglass 51-50 on Friday night.

Photo by Joel Dotson
Milan’s Garrett Gardette shoots the game-winning free throw with 5.1 seconds left. The Big Reds defeated Detroit Douglass 51-50 on Friday night.

By Joel Dotson

A hero can be defined in a number of ways. Actor Christopher Reeve defined a hero this way: “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

In the Milan Big Reds’ state semifinal game against the Detroit Douglass Hurricanes on Friday night, the hero of the game was the most unlikely of them all – freshman Garrett Gardette.

With 5.1 seconds remaining in the game, Gardette stepped to the free throw line for a 1-and-1, having been fouled by a Douglass player. Gardette averaged roughly 10 minutes a game during the regular season, but the game action then was nothing like being in the Breslin Center, with the game being tied at 50 and the chance to go to the state finals hanging in the balance. Up to the time of the free throw, Gardette had no points.

“I was really nervous (before shooting the free throws),” he said. “I wasn’t in the game much (before that).”

Despite his nerves, Gardette hit the first free throw, and gave the Big Reds a 51-50 lead. He missed the second, as the ball bounced off the right side of the rim, and chaos ensued. The ball was rebounded by a Hurricane player, who threw it in the direction of a teammate, but Big Red Donovan Verges intercepted the ball, held onto it – stunned that he caught it – and threw it in the air as the final buzzer sounded. The Big Reds survived, with the one-point victory in tow.

Verges, with the adrenaline still flowing in the postgame press conference, described his steal attempt in a simple fashion. “I saw the ball (coming toward me) and decided to grab it so we could get the steal and win the game (to) make sure (Douglass) didn’t get the ball,” he said.

Milan is headed back to the state championship for the first time in 66 years. The last time the Big Reds won it all in 1948, they won the Class C state title at Jenison Fieldhouse.

Tropea was proud of his team following the victory. “The guys won the game and never quit,” he said. “They made big play after big play.”

Regarding the key free throw from Gardette, Tropea summed the moment up in 10 words: “What a big time free throw by a freshman, huh?”

The Big Reds took their first lead in the game on a three-pointer by Latin Davis, which made the score 7-6 with 4:04 to go in the opening quarter. The defensive-minded first quarter ended with Milan leading 13-11. Davis scored 7 of the team’s 13 points in the frame.

The second period was opened by Milan’s Thomas Lindeman three-pointer 21 seconds in. The Big Reds took their biggest lead of the game with 3:23 to go in the half, when Davis hit a three to put Milan up 26-19. Douglass battled back to tie the score at 30, capping a 7-0 run with a layup as time expired.

The Big Reds battled back from deficits throughout the second half, trailing by as many as 10 at one point in the third quarter.

During the third, the Hurricanes were able to draw Milan out of their 2-3 zone and forced them to play man-to-man defense. Douglass’ All-State guard Darrell Davis dominated the frame with ball control, frequently driving for layups or drawing fouls in the process. Verges hit the team’s second bucket of the quarter with 24 seconds remaining, which closed the quarter’s scoring and drew Milan within striking distance. Scoring only four points in the quarter, the Big Reds trailed 42-34 with the final 8 minutes to be played.

Milan big man Nick Perkins came alive in the fourth stanza, scoring 6 quick points and helping to rally the Big Reds from their 8-point deficit. Milan tied the game at 45 with 3:37 to go on a Verges three-pointer that ignited the Big Reds’ faithful crowd. The lead changed hands 5 times in the last two-and-a-half minutes, before Douglass’ Terrell Hales made a free throw and tied the game at 50 with 23.1 seconds left. The Big Reds moved the ball against the Hurricanes’ press defense, when Gardette was fouled, setting up the game-winning score.

On the night, Davis led the Big Reds in scoring with 17 points, scoring 14 of them in the first half. Perkins added 16, scoring 10 in the pivotal final quarter.

The Class B state championship game will take place on Saturday March 22, at 6:30 p.m. Milan will take on the Benton Harbor Tigers (17-9), who defeated Cadillac 69-52 in the game preceding the Big Reds’ victory.

For the Big Red players, the title game will be a special moment. “All year, we said we’ve wanted to make history at Milan,” Latin Davis said. “We’ve wanted to leave a legacy here, and that’s what we’re trying to do this year.”

 

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