On Friday at practice, Schoolcraft College freshman forward Tyler Johnson pulled coach Abe Mashhour aside.
“Tyler’s been so locked in lately and he’s been shooting the ball absolutely terrific in practice,” Mashhour said. “His comment to me yesterday was ‘Coach, this is the best my shot has felt all year.’ So I told him hey, then just let it rip. And he obviously did.”
Howell alum Johnson certainly did, hitting four treys before Saturday’s Michigan Community College Athletic Association men’s basketball championship game was five minutes old.
That torrid stretch gave the Ocelots a 15-2 lead and — despite letting Lake Michigan College briefly get back into the game later in the first half — Schoolcraft was more than able to bring home the title, 88-77.
“I had 10 (triples) against Alpena a couple weeks ago,” said Johnson, who finished with a game-high 23 points. “But when you hit the first one or two and see them go in you can’t really stop going. It feels good coming out of my hands and I let it go.”
Schoolcraft (27-3, ranked No. 1 in the nation) now moves on to the NJCAA District 10 tournament next week. The team needs to win districts in order to qualify for nationals.
“We talked about the different seasons, and this season just ended and now it’s time for the national tournament,” said Mashhour, also named MCCAA coach of the year. “We have to take care of business at districts to give ourselves a chance to go to the national tournament.
“They’re great guys and I’m proud of them more for the kind of people they are than I am as to what they do on the basketball court.”
Johnson’s outside proficiency sparked the Ocelots to a 46-40 halftime lead.
But it was the inside game of freshman forwards Anthony Wartley-Fritz, Davon Taylor (Canton) and sophomore forward Javan Thomas that closed out the win and Schoolcraft’s first MCCAA crown since 2008.
Needing to establish the inside game after getting jumper happy, Mashhour reminded his team both during in-game timeouts and halftime to start working the ball down low.
Seconds into the second half, Wartley-Fritz (15 points, 11 rebounds) muscled in for a putback. Following soon thereafter with layups were freshman forward Marcus Williams (seven points) and Thomas, who registered 18 points.
Then with 17 minutes left in regulation, Thomas stole the ball at mid-court, took a few steps and then floated through the air for a soaring slam that sent the Schoolcraft “O-Zone” into orbit, putting the Ocelots up 54-42.
“It feel real good, I was just trying to get my team up so I could start a good run,” said Thomas, whose return at mid-season ignited Schoolcraft’s 16-game winning streak. “To motivate my team with that dunk. I felt the crowd I felt my team start to get excited, everything.
Mashhour said Thomas brings intangibles to the court that have help lifted the Ocelots to another level.
“His energy is unmatched, he just plays with terrific energy and obviously around the basket he’s very tough,” Mashhour said. “You can’t teach that kind of toughness or that kind of energy, that’s just how he plays the game.”
Also chipping in with eight points off the bench was Taylor, who made a couple of strong baseline moves to the basket.
“We’re a good team, we play well together and I love it a lot,” said Taylor, whose former Canton coach (Jimmy Reddy) and ex-teammates watched from the jam-packed bleachers. “We work well and I get a lot of playing time because I work hard in practice, so it’s good. We can accomplish big things.”
First, Schoolcraft had to get past Lake Michigan.
For a while, the MCCAA East Conference champion Red Hawks (21-9) were bent on spoiling things for the home team.
After Schoolcraft’s early surge, Lake Michigan went on a 26-11 tear to knot things up at 28-all with 7:45 left in the first half.
Both Alec Brown and Michael Bush hit three treys and finished with 15 points. Leading Lake Michigan with 16 points was Labradford Sebree.
Mashhour said it was crucial that his team got back to the game plan of getting points in the paint.
“That was the difference in the game if you ask me,” he noted. “We started controlling the paint a lot better. To their credit they fought very hard, Lake Michigan did, they have a very, very good ballclub there.”
Meanwhile, Mashhour tipped his cap to his coaching staff of Michael Allie (Livonia Stevenson), Corey McKendry (Livonia Clarenceville) and Seth Coffing.
Both McKendry and Coffing came over with Mashhour from Henry Ford.
“Best staff anywhere and I really, really mean that,” Mashhour emphasized. “Our assistant coaches are terrific, they’ve all been been successful high school coaches.
“So if I miss practice they’re here to go from there. They have the head coach’s mentality when we’re game planning, which was very pivotal today.”