Photo by Joel Dotson The Milan Big Reds celebrate winning the Class B title on Saturday, March 22. The Big Reds defeated Benton Harbor 78-59, winning the school's first basketball title in 66 years.
Photo by Joel Dotson
The Milan Big Reds celebrate winning the Class B title on Saturday, March 22. The Big Reds defeated Benton Harbor 78-59, winning the school’s first basketball title in 66 years.

By Joel Dotson

Milan junior point guard Latin Davis talked about how he and his teammates wanted to leave a legacy in the press conference following the Big Reds’ 51-50 heart-pounding semifinal win over Detroit Douglass on Friday night.

And leave a legacy they did. Milan won their first basketball state title since 1948 on Saturday night, defeating the Benton Harbor Tigers 78-59 for the Class B championship in front of a crowd of 11,445 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

On the strength of their two key players, Davis and Nick Perkins, the Big Reds controlled the game from beginning to end.

Milan trailed only once, a 3-2 deficit two minutes into the game. Davis and Perkins scored the next six points in the game, and from there, the Big Reds never looked back.

Davis was 13-for-17 from the floor and scored a career-high 34 points. He tied the state finals record for three-pointers, hitting all 7 of his three-point attempts. Perkins, the other half of Milan’s dynamic duo, added 24 points, going 10-for-16 from the field and 4-for-6 from the free-throw line. Simply stated, Benton Harbor had no answer for the Big Reds’ two junior weapons.

“All year, we’ve been talking about the importance of our (role players), but tonight was about the stars (of our team),” Milan coach Josh Tropea said after the game. “Latin had an unbelievable game, and Nick dominated the second half inside. Tonight, our best players showed up for us and won the game.”

The Big Reds led for most of the first quarter. Warren Calloway opened the scoring on a four-foot jumper a minute-and-a-half into the game. The Tigers’ Jaton Gunn hit a 3-pointer to give Benton Harbor a 3-2 lead, their only one of the game. From there, Davis and Perkins took over for Milan. The Big Reds led 22-15 after the opening quarter, with Davis scoring 12 points and Perkins putting up 6. Gunn scored 11 of the Tigers’ points, including three 3-pointers.

Milan stretched the lead to 10, at 32-22, halfway through the second period, following three-pointers by Lance Lewis and Davis. Benton Harbor continued to score on the strength of their offensive rebounding, while Davis and Perkins led the way for the Big Reds. At the half, Milan held a 43-35 lead.

The Big Reds went to a 1-2-2 trap defense in the third, holding the Tigers scoreless for the first 3 minutes. Davis hit two 3-pointers in a stretch that found Milan leading 51-35. Benton Harbor clawed their way back, closing the gap to 10 with 2:22 to go in the quarter, before the Big Reds reeled off 9 straight points to end the quarter with a 65-46 advantage.

“In the third quarter, we started playing defense,” Tropea said. “We hang our hat on our defense. Our defense wasn’t there in the first half.”

“We had to do a better job rebounding the basketball and stopping second-chance points. Our defense clamped down in the third, and that was the difference.”

Both teams scored 13 points apiece in the final quarter, with Benton Harbor unable to mount a comeback. Davis and Perkins with 30 seconds remaining in the game, each exiting to tremendous ovations from the Milan supporters. After gaining possession of the ball with only seconds left and tossing it in the field of play, the Big Red players passed the ball around as the clock drew closer to zero. Celebration followed the final buzzer, with players jumping around and raising their arms in triumph.

The Big Reds achieved several significant accomplishments in the 2013-14 season. They won their 900th all-time game as a program, clinched their third straight Huron League title and won district and regional crowns. Milan also set a school record for single-season wins with 25, winning their last 20 ballgames.

Of all of the victories the Big Reds had this year, none were sweeter than this one.

“I’m a little speechless, to be honest with you,” Tropea said after the game. “It still hasn’t set in yet. We played a great basketball game, and (on the offensive end), we were amazing.

“We’ve played in (the Breslin Center) before. We were here in a summer camp in June, and that’s when these guys decided they wanted to get back (to this building). Tonight was ‘we’re gonna do what we do and play Milan basketball, and we’re gonna do it better than Benton Harbor does’.”

The win was special not only because of the current significance, but also because a member of Milan’s past history was in attendance. Harlan Benjamin, who was a sophomore on Milan’s last state championship team 66 years ago, gave the squad a pep talk after their practice on Thursday. After the Saturday victory, the Big Red players went up to the second level of the stands to show their appreciation to Benjamin, each greeting him with a handshake before returning to the floor for the trophy ceremony.

“Before the game, (Harlan) found (Milan assistant coach) Chris Pope and gave him (Harlan’s) state championship patch,” Tropea said. “(Harlan) duct taped over the ’48′, putting ’14′ on it and said ‘Go win one for me’. To have him here and on the floor after the game was really special.”

“I told our kids on Thursday before we came here, ‘Whether you win this thing or not, someone’s going to want you to speak 40, 50, 60 years from now’, and after this weekend, I think they’ve solidified that. They’re going to be remembered forever at Milan.”


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