When Detroit Country Day thumped Lansing Sexton in the Class B state championship game three years ago, it would have seemed farfetched at the time to predict that the Big Reds would build a prep basketball powerhouse in the mold of the Draymond Green-led Saginaw High ballclub that won back-to-back Class A state championships in 2008 and 2009.
But Country Day coach Kurt Keener had a feeling back then that his team had not seen the last of Sexton. And Keener also knew that his team would find it difficult beat Sexton going away as they had in 2010.
"I give the credit to them and those kids have worked real hard," said Keener, following his team's 74-59 loss to the Big Reds in the second of two Class B semifinal games played at the Breslin Center on Friday. "When I saw them three years ago when they were mostly sophomores I thought, 'Ooh we are in for trouble for the next couple of years.' They have continued to work and develop and I give all of the credit to that squad and that program."
If Sexton defeats Stevensville Lakeshore tomorrow evening, the Big Reds will become the first team to win back-to-back Class B state titles since former Ohio State standout Brent Darby led River Rouge to consecutive championship in 1998 and 1999.
"It is just very crazy being in three straight state championship games," said future Spartan Denzel Valentine. "It is like a dream come true. I just want to try and come out and play as hard as I can."
Valentine finished one assist short of a triple double against Country Day. The future Spartan scored 12 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, and added nine assists with five steals. He also finished with an uncharacteristic eight turnovers.
"They always get you out of their rhythm with that defense they play," said Valentine when asked about his elevated turnovers against Country Day. "When you drive they really pack it in and they have really scrappy guys who knock down the ball when you penetrate. I was just trying get the ball to my teammates."
Keener sees Magic in Valentine's Game
Keener, who coached Country Day to seven Class B championships, would be surprised if Sexton does not win its second consecutive championship.
"They have no weaknesses," said Keener. "There is no weak player. Probably the most limited skill player is Jalen Hayes and I think that he had 10 points at halftime. But he does what he does, he gets around the basket and gets tip ins. They don't run any plays for him. But the other guys are capable of creating baskets and they play very unselfishly."
Sexton's greatest strength is the unselfishness of Valentine, who possesses the potential to score 30 or more points per game but understands that his role as a facilitator is more important to the success of his team.
"That is greatness of Denzel Valentine and we will watch him for the next four years on this court," said Keener. "He is as close to a Magic Johnson that I have seen in my time here with those look away passes and just how he makes everybody on the court better."
Just having Valentine on the court made took away the Yellowjacket's ability to press.
"They get the ball out so quick even when we score. We would hit a three and try and get into our presses and they would get it out quick and go," Keener said. "Denzel Valentine is a point forward. A power forward and point guard and he is impossible to trap. He is such a great passer that even if you get a double team on him (it is difficult). He had a turnover today and I was shocked. Is that right that he had eight turnovers? I don't think that he had eight turnovers in the ten games that we scouted him."
Country Day did not abandon its pressure defense completely. And the Yellowjackets did force some turnovers in the backcourt. But they also gave up transition baskets set up by long inbound passes from Valentine who found fellow seniors Anthony Clemmons (Iowa) and Bryn Forbes (Cleveland State) who scored 21 and 19 points respectively.
Sexton scored 19 fastbreak points despite Country Day's decision to press sparingly. In the halfcourt, Sexton attacked the basket and was rewarded with 44 points in the paint. The Big Reds also enjoyed a 21-10 advantage in second-chance points.
"Their ability to go to be basket at every position (was difficult for us)," said Keener. "They are really very, very physical It is not that the game wasn't called well, it is just basketball. They could put a chest, a body, a forearm on your hip and knock you off screens and that. I give the credit to them and those kids have worked real hard."
In terms of physicality, Sexton beat Country Day at its own game.
"They were probably the best (team we played) because they were so physical with us," said Country Day senior Jodan Price. "We played physical teams, but we haven't played a team that could really match up to us man for man. That basically kind of limited us on offense."
Price, a senior captain, was held to just five points on 2-of-7 shooting. One of those field goals was a fourth quarter dunk that brought his team within seven points. But after Price pulled his team within striking distance of Sexton, the Big Reds responded with a big run to put the game out of reach.
"After that dunk, I felt that was a really big momentum swing and in the huddle we just said that defense is going to win our games," Price said. "And that has been our mantra this entire year. That is what we focused on in the huddle and we just came out and we had heart and played to the best of our ability. It just wasn't enough."
Four Quarters Away from Class B championship
Sexton coach Carlton Valentine gained a great deal of respect for Stevensville Lakeshore while watching the team's decisive win over West Michigan powerhouse Muskegon Heights.
"They are very good," said the Sexton coach. "I watched them play today against a very scrappy and tough Muskegon Heights team. They are very well-coached. They like to get the ball inside. They have great shooters. They execute their offense and they pressure you. They get up and they get into you. I was impressed with them. I hadn't seen them before but those guys, they've got a lot of length and they will get up in you with fullcourt pressure, not just halfcourt. If we are going to have a chance tomorrow we are going to have to take care of the basketball, execute and handle pressure. We are going to have to handle the pressure because those guys have length and they pressure you. I know that caused Muskegon Heights some problems tonight so it is back to the drawing board."
Sexton did not play its 'A' game against Detroit Country Day. Some of the credit goes to Country Day who did a better job than a lot of Sexton's opponents at limiting the Big Red's from creating scoring opportunities off of penetration.
"You don't always win pretty," said the elder Valentine. "You've got to give Country Day a lot of credit. I just told coach Keener that I had a lot of respect for him and his program and how hard he gets his teams to play. It just seems like year after year Country Day is right there and that goes to coach Keener and his 30 years plus of experience shows because he doesn't maybe have the quality of guys that he has had over the years but man he sure gets it done. I thought his guys competed hard. I thought our guys competed too. I want to give my guys credit because I don't give them enough credit. They work hard, they execute the game plan and we find a way to win games. I didn't think that we were the smartest offensively tonight. But give Country Day the credit because sometimes they make you play that way. But I am real excited for our program. These guys have put in lots of work, lots of, lots of, lots of work. I am just excited that we will have an opportunity to play in our third straight state championship game."
Sexton may have had a few rough patches in execution on offense, but the Big Reds were solid on defense. Sexton limited the number of quality looks Country Day shooters had from behind the arc.
"The main thing that we want to do is that we make sure that we got up on their 3-point shooters," said Valentine. "They shoot the ball extremely well. Jodan Price, that guy can flat out shoot the ball. Austin Price is good too, so the one thing that we wanted to do is get them out of their rhythm, get them out of their comfort spots. That is the thing that you have to do with really good shooters. You have to get them out of what they normally do. I think we took them out of their rhythm a little bit."