Prep boys basketball: Whitens leads North Central over Munising in OT

ESCANABA – Jason Whitens was a lot of things during North Central’s 54-46 overtime victory over Munising in Monday night’s MHSAA Class D regional semifinal, but a freshman – no matter how many times fans chanted “he’s a freshman” – was not one of them.

Freshmen make mistakes, panic when the ball is in their hands with your team down by three with 15 seconds to go.

Freshmen don’t make a step-back, game-tying, 3-pointer under immense pressure in front of a packed house to send the game to overtime.

But that’s what Whitens did Monday night.

“There’s not a lot going through your mind there besides, I need to make this, and it just went in,” said Whitens of the shot that saved North Central’s season.

And that’s no understatement.

The Mustangs led 35-30 going into the fourth quarter, having wrestled control of the momentum with a 5-0 run. For Munising, so the adage goes, it might as well have been a 15 point lead.

But North Central stormed back with three points from Rob Granquist on a free throw and fade-away jumper, followed by an 18-footer from Whitens. But the see-saw continued to go back and forth.

At about the two minute mark, the game was tied at 39 and Whitens was at the line having made two foul shots a minute earlier. He made one of two giving the Jets a one point lead. On the other end, Trevor Ekberg came up with a big block and the Jets came storming down the court, but came up short.

Munising drained the clock down and got the ball to Ben Stasewich and he hit a big shot to give the Mustangs a 41-40 advantage. The Jets then missed on a three attempts on their next possession, and had to quickly foul twice to get into the bonus with time ticking away.

Colin Immel stepped to the line for Munising, having been held scoreless the entire game, but he sunk both shots, and North Central’s season came down to 15 seconds.

Whitens was covered by Immel on his 3-point shot that he faked and then adjusted before launching a seemingly off-balance prayer, that ended up being nothing but net.

“It was an explosion of emotion. There’s no other way I can put it,” said Ekberg of the play. “It was a drawn up play for either (Whitens) or me to shoot it, and I’m glad he shot it and made it.”

Even after that, Munising still had a shot in regulation as Austin Kelto received the ball in open space and tore down court with Travis Vincent defending him. There was a collision as Kelto went up for the shot, but no foul was called and the buzzer sounded, ending regulation.

Munising (19-4) had possession with one minute to go in the fourth quarter, down by one point, but Mustangs head coach Dan Waterman said he didn’t consider holding the ball for one shot to win it.

“We were down by only one with a minute to go and we had to continue to be aggressive, because we tried to run it down in each and every quarter and they poked balls away from us in two of those first three quarters. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to continue to attack,” said Waterman. “I thought we had a better chance of scoring going to the rim versus putting it on the free throw line, and we did. We scored a bucket, then got up by three.”

Waterman amounted Whitens’ shot to players simply making a play.

“You have to give the Whitens kid credit. He hit a huge shot with a guy draped all over him,” he said. “Their season is on the line, and that’s a freshman taking that shot, and he stepped up big time. You have to tip your hat, he made a play.”

In overtime, the Jets went on a 9-0 run, making 7-of-10 free throws.

“We missed a big defensive rebound off a missed free throw with the score tied at 46 at that point, and they regained possession,” said Waterman. “We fouled them, they made both free throws, we came down and missed, and they came down and scored again. It was a four point game with roughly two minutes to go. That totally changes the complexion of the game. The game literally turned in that instant.”

North Central (24-0) will move on to face Forest Park in at 7 p.m. in Wednesday’s regional final. The Trojans (20-3) defeated Lake Linden-Hubbell 75-60 in the first game Monday night.