By DOUG DONNELLY
EAST LANSING – Morenci gave new meaning to March madness Thursday evening in East Lansing.
The Bulldogs led by six points with 11 seconds remaining when a bizarre sequence of events gave previously undefeated Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes an opportunity to tie the game with :01 left on the clock, only to see an errant free throw give Morenci a 53-52 victory and a berth in Saturday morning’s Class D state championship game.
Morenci (24-2) will be playing for its first state title in school history.
“This is a lifelong dream,” Morenci coach Jim Bauer said.
The Bulldogs led after each quarter and led by as many as nine points in its first-ever semifinal appearance. Alex Thomas responded to nearly each of the Lakers late runs, however, with a key basket, free throw or rebound, keeping Morenci alive and in the lead.
Thomas made it 44-38 with under four minutes remaining after the Lakers were called for a flagrant foul as he went in for what looked to be an uncontested layup. Two straight Waterford baskets cut it to a two-point game however and the Lakers were whistled for a offensive foul on a basket that appeared to have tied the game.
Second later, Thomas again stepped to the line, making it 46-42.
Morenci built its lead to 51-45 with 1:03 left when the Lakers got a triple from All-Stater Nick Robak with :08 seconds left, making the score 53-50. After a Waterford timeout, Morenci tried to go deep with the inbounds pass, but Andrew Kline stepped in front of it, and found Robak, was attempted a game-tying three-pointer from the corner but was fouled by Blade Mellon with :01 left.
Robak made the first two free throws, but the third came up short and Torin Merillat grabbed the rebound and secured the Morenci win.
Robak led all scorers with 21 points as the Lakers’ 25-game winning streak came to an end.
Morenci, the Tri-County Conference champions, became the first TCC team to advance to the state finals since Sand Creek in 1992.
Thomas played a tremendous game, scoring 19 points and pulling down seven rebounds –both Bulldog highs.
“I knew I had to step up and do something,” Thomas said. “The shots were just falling.”
Sandusky – the team’s leading scorer at 14.0 points per game, was limited to 7 points – all in the second half, but he did tack on five assists.
Bauer said Sandusky told him three years ago the team would be playing at the Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State.
“He promised me he was going to take me there and he did,” Bauer said.
Tucker Stover fouled out with 9 points, including three triples. Morenci shot 7-18 from three-point range for the game, better than Waterford’s 4-15 effort from beyond the arc.
Morenci 53, Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes 52
Senerius 4-1-9, Lochbiler 1-0-2, Robak 5-2-5-21, Kline 4-2-0-12, Cartier 3-0-6, Skaer 1-0-02. Totals 17-4-6-52.
Stover 0-3-0-9, Black 1-1-2-7, Merillat 3-0-6, Thomas 3-2-7-19, Sandusky 1-5-7, Mellon 0-1-0-3, Borton 1-0-2. Totals 9-7-14-53.
WOLL 5 10 19 18 = 52
MOR 13 9 15 16 = 53