BAD AXE — In each of the last four seasons, Unionville-Sebewaing Area had its boys’ basketball season end at the hands of the eventual Class C state champions.
After Thursday’s sixth-ranked Patriots’ 65-42 loss to top-ranked Flint Beecher in a Division 3 regional final at Bad Axe High School, the Buccaneers (23-2) look primed to potentially add to that streak they’re the key contributor to with post-USA victory state-title runs from 2015-17.
On the same stage a year ago, the Patriots (22-1) ended the Bucs’ run at a potential fourth consecutive state championship. They went on to fall in the quarterfinal round to Detroit Edison Academy on its march to a state title.
As was anticipated, Beecher played like it had something to prove against the Patriots in their latest encounter. It’s usually the other way around, but motivation aside, the Bucs showed why they’re so highly thought of this season.
“They have their two best players (NCAA Division I recruits Jalen Terry and Earnest Sanders) back, and they’ve been thinking about this game since last year. We knew coming in this year that we weren’t going to be able to sneak by them,” said USA coach Mark Gainforth. “You could tell right from the start their intensity was unlike Tuesday (against Millington) when they just settled into the game.
“They came after us, and their athleticism obviously gave us a lot of problems,” he added. “When (Beecher) extended the floor and with us not having a deep bench, it’s going to wear on our guards, and that’s what happened. We spent a lot of time with the ball 30 feet from the basket trying to get into the lane.”
USA won its first 22 games this season after winning its first 25 last season for a remarkable stretch of consistency. The Patriots got a game-high 26 points on six 3-pointers from junior Landin Zimmer, including a spectacular stretch near the end of the third quarter in which he cut a 43-26 deficit to 43-32 after hitting a 3-pointer, drawing a foul after the basket counted to regain his team possession, and then draining another three.
“In this spot last year he never got in the game,” said Gainforth of Zimmer’s role as the sixth man last year for the regional-final win over Beecher in which the Patriots’ starters never left the court. “His transition going from not getting into a regional final to being the best player on the floor for us today is an unbelievable turnaround, and it was against a team that also saw him score 26 on Tuesday (in a semifinal win over Ithaca), so he wasn’t a secret weapon of ours.
“They knew they needed to shut him down, and they couldn’t,” he added. “I’m in awe of his performance today.”
Zimmer stands to lead USA as its top offensive threat as a senior next year. He was the Patriots’ top three-point shooter and led them in scoring on a number of occasions this season.
After USA pulled to within 43-32 on the second of Zimmer’s back-to-back threes, Jalen Terry made arguably the biggest shot of the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer in response that pushed the Beecher lead back to 46-32 for a 14-point spread going into the fourth quarter that would hold up.
“That’s just a big-time shot by a big-time player,” said Gainforth.
Terry’s buzzer-beater wasn’t the only one in the game for the Bucs, as his playmaking led to another when USA’s defense overplayed him and he found an open Carmelo Harris for a three that extended a 27-16 Beecher lead to a 30-16 advantage heading into halftime.
“Our guys know we wanted to take (Terry) away, but we got caught up in a switch,” said Gainforth. “He’s the number-one player in the state as a junior, and I tend to believe that he could be.”
Harris led Beecher with 20 points, Terry added 18 points and Sanders contributed 15.
“They’re one of the top-five teams in the state in any class,” said Gainforth. “You don’t get to that kind of status without having a lot of really good players.”
Gainforth was very proud of his team’s season.
“We had our two senior starters (Micah Cramer and Tyler Heckroth) back from last year, but the rest was a bit of an unknown and our season still exceeded all expectations,” said Gainforth. “I didn’t know Landin Zimmer was going to step up like he did and have a Glen Rice-like end of his season, and (fellow starters) Nash (Morton) and Kyle (Maust) became very good players.
“We’re just gritty,” he added. “It’s one of the grittiest teams I’ve ever coached, with a high IQ. Those are two intangibles you don’t often get that you can’t coach, and I’m really proud of them for that.”
USA advanced to the finals with a 63-60 overtime win over Ithaca, while Millington (15-7) dropped its opener to Beecher 64-40.
A free throw by Maust and two more from Cramer accounted for the Patriots’ game-winning points after the game was tied at 51 to end regulation.
Ethan Brady led the Cardinals, who trailed 21-11 after the first quarter, 39-15 at halftime and 53-28 through three quarters, with 18 points.
Adam Smith is sports editor for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.