Welcome to our newest BallinMichigan series, ‘EPIC NIGHT!’ This recurring feature will be a first-person account of some of the greatest high school basketball games that we’ve witnessed firsthand. I have a few guest writers lined up who will contribute to this series over the coming weeks, but please, if you have a game that you watched that has stuck with you over the years that you’d like to write about, e-mail patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com. We’d love to have as many people contribute to this series as possible.
There were a couple times during the 2009-10 basketball season where Flint Northern employed a … let’s just call it ‘curious’ … strategy.
Northern was a solid, if unspectacular, team that season, but playing in the Saginaw Valley League and loading up its non-conference schedule with big-time opponents meant the Vikings played top competition most nights. In a few instances, they played teams with far superior talent, and during those games, they did something that made good basketball sense for an underdog: they choked the life out of the ball in order to run time off the clock and limit the number of possessions their more talented opponents could get.
It usually consisted of a Northern guard holding the ball at halfcourt and just running clock. Defenses would have to choose between actually bringing a defender all the way out to half court to force Northern to do something, or allow Northern to contentedly take huge chunks of time out of the game and keep the score from getting out of hand. It wasn’t a terrible strategy. It kept Northern in a couple of games they probably wouldn’t have been in if it got into an up and down matchup. But the two times I saw it in person at home games that season, the crowd was not about to listen to any rational arguments about a clock killing strategy working effectively. This was the gym that Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith had filled to capacity. This was the gym that, at one time in the 1990s, saw high-scoring, up-and-down, well-played high school basketball. Flint basketball has declined, obviously, since that era with massive population loss and other problems that have plagued the city, but Flint is also an incredibly prideful place that doesn’t like admitting inferiority. Sitting on the ball looked like an admission that the team wasn’t good enough to win, when in reality, it was just a strategy to slow games down against deeper, more experienced and talented teams that had explosive running games.
Heading into Northern’s Feb. 2, 2010, home game against Powers Catholic I wondered if Northern would try to slow the pace way down. Powers was the most experienced and most talented team in the Flint area that season, returning several key starters from a team that won a state championship in 2009. Northern returned only one all-league caliber player from the previous season, Shaquille Smith, and on top of that, had absorbed several players from former rival Flint Central, which had closed before the school year started. The team had talent, but it often fit together clumsily, resulting in some outstanding performances followed up by really disjointed ones. Slowing the pace of games often helped Northern’s sometimes erratic players play more under control and structured basketball, something they’d occasionally struggle with (as all young teams do) if the game opened up too much.
Against Powers, though, Northern went the opposite route — they played faster. Northern inserted quick freshman point guard Richie Lewis into the starting lineup next to Smith, also a point guard. They also ran some of their offense through forward Gerald Williams-Taylor, an unselfish passer, which allowed their lightning fast guards to move without the ball and make Powers’ defenders chase them through screens. The result was a 20-point first quarter and 39-point first half, both impressive marks for a team that often struggled to score, and a 10-point lead at halftime.
The key, though, was Lewis. Not only was he new to the starting lineup, Northern matched him up defensively against Powers’ All-State guard Patrick Lucas-Perry. Lewis helped hold Lucas-Perry to just six points in the game. Lewis was always one of my favorite high school players to cover, simply because he always had immense confidence even as a freshman. Here was what he said when I asked him after the game about defending Lucas-Perry:
“I just look at it as another player,” Lewis said.
Most freshmen would say something similar whether they were actually intimidated by the moment or not, that’s just how athletes are. The difference with Lewis, though, is not only would he calmly tell you he wasn’t intimidated, he’d go out and prove it by shutting down one of the top players (and also a very experienced guard) in the state as if he did that sort of thing every day.
Northern maintained its lead the entire game and weathered a strong Powers run in the fourth quarter to hold on and win 68-65. That win brought Northern to .500 and it felt at the time like it would be a turning point in their season. Things didn’t really materialize that way, as their inconsistent play continued, but it was still an incredibly fun night and a game where the Northern crowd got to see the kind of fast-paced offense and hard-nosed defense that makes traditional Flint basketball so easy to love.
Where are they now?
Looking back on this game, I’m struck by the number of college players both of these teams produced. Here’s a rundown of some of the key performers in that game:
Richie Lewis, Northern: Entering his senior year, one of the top point guard prospects in Michigan in his class.