Mountaineers win in East Lansing, will play for state title
EAST LANSING – “Living this dream.”
Iron Mountain coach Bucky Johnson put special emphasis on those words Thursday afternoon.
He may have been pointing out the present tense of “living” after his Mountaineers ended the season for 2018 Class C champion Detroit Edison. Or maybe the “dream” as his team earned a shot to play for its first MHSAA boys basketball championship since winning the Upper Peninsula-only bracket in 1939.
Iron Mountain faced a tall task in the day’s first Division 3 Semifinal, even for a team that hasn’t tasted defeat this season. But the Mountaineers held off Edison 60-57 in their first Semifinals appearance since 1994.
“There’s not a lot of U.P. teams that get to come down here and experience this,” Iron Mountain junior guard Foster Wonders said. “To come down here and win too is something special. We take pride in that. It’s been unbelievable.”
Iron Mountain (27-0) will face unbeaten Pewamo-Westphalia in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. (Central time) championship game.
The Mountaineers have enjoyed quite a visit to East Lansing. On Wednesday, they spent an hour with 1973 graduate Tom Izzo, then watched his Michigan State team practice Thursday morning.
And all of that set up the Semifinal they weren’t necessarily expected to win – despite the perfect record they brought downstate. Edison (18-9) had more losses than all but one team making the trip to Breslin this weekend, but all seven to in-state opponents had come against Division 1 and 2 teams, and the Pioneers had just toppled top-ranked Flint Beecher in their Quarterfinal.
Edison then led most of the first quarter, carrying a seven-point advantage into the second.
“In the U.P. you don’t really see any athletes like that, with the length and athleticism they had,” Iron Mountain junior guard Marcus Johnson said.
But he and his teammates had a few surprises for Edison as well.
First was a game plan to attack the paint, which resulted in two first-quarter fouls for Pioneers’ 6-foot-6 junior Bryce George. He ended up limited to only 15 minutes for the game, with eight points and six rebounds that could’ve been a lot more with more time on the floor. He had four points and four rebounds before picking up that second foul 5:11 into the game.
Next, Iron Mountain played only six players, and four all 32 minutes. Edison had 12 players with at least four minutes of action, but couldn’t wear the Mountaineers down.
Not surprising was how Iron Mountain won. Johnson was averaging 23.3 points per game entering this week, and sophomore guard Foster Wonders was averaging 23.9. Wonders had 28 on Thursday, making nearly half his shots from the floor and 9-of-10 free-throw tries. Johnson had 23 points, with five 3-pointers and perfection on six free-throw attempts.
“One thing we knew about this team is they were winners. If a team has gone all season not losing a basketball, game, you have to respect them to the utmost,” Edison coach Brandon Neely said. “These guys play six guys, and one guy played four minutes. The thing about this team is they play so well as a team because they know where guys are. Teams like that are a great example to learn from.
“They played like champions.”
Sophomore guard Ralph Johnson came off the bench to lead Edison with 14 points, and senior forward Brian Taylor was held to 11 points and seven rebounds. Taylor, the team’s leading scorer coming into this week, was also its lone senior this season.
Edison shot a game-high 47 percent from the floor during the fourth quarter and got within 45-44 with 3:26 to play. But Iron Mountain’s “makers” – as Bucky Johnson called them, spinning off the “shooters shoot” phrase – had connected on 64 percent of their shots during the third quarter and made 50 percent during the fourth, including both shots from the floor and 10 straight free throws after Edison pulled within a point.
“Coach Izzo told us some people like it, some people love it and some people live it,” Marcus Johnson said. “And we want to live it. It’s an awesome feeling to get to the championship, and we want to get it home.”