EAST LANSING — The Frankfort Panthers' incredible run to the Division 4 state title ran out of magic when they fell to Southfield Christian 63-39.
The Eagles (21-6) only trailed for 19 seconds before they ripped off a 13-0 run in the first quarter and ran away with their second straight D4 state title over the surging Panthers (21-6) at Michigan State University's Breslin Center in East Lansing on Saturday.
Saturday was the Panthers' first appearance in the boys basketball title game in school history, while Southfield Christian has now won five out of the last eight D4 state championships.
Frankfort reaching the Final Four was a surprise to most as they lost all five starters, a top sub and the head coach from last year's team, but first-year head coach Dan Loney feels this is the start of something more.
"This sets expectations for the program," Loney said. "Those guys that are on the bench see how you have to play to get here and what you have to do when you get here. To me, it is bigger than basketball. It's about the relationships I have made with these guys over the last year, trophies and medals don't mean anything, we have memories that will last us a lifetime."
Those memories include a buzzer-beater to win the regional title, overtime wins in districts and the quarterfinals and a one-point victory in the semifinal among countless others that defined the Panthers' season.
"So proud of these guys, they set the tone for our program," Loney said. "This is where we want Frankfort to be and these guys did a good job of getting us here. Now these underclassmen see that and know what it feels like to be here. They set the tone for the entire program."
Frankfort showed up to Breslin with a lot of momentum behind them, but the Eagles stole that immediately after the Panthers' first bucket.
Senior Jon Sanders netted six quick points to spark the Southfield Christian run before Frankfort senior Will Newbold was able to counter the attack with eight straight points.
The Eagles followed the example of Wyoming Tri-unity Christian and came at the Panthers with a full-court press, except the Eagles brought the pressure from the tip.
The Panthers had trouble breaking the press in the first half, often being stopped well beyond the three-point line and getting double teamed before the offense could even set up.
"We saw it (the press) here and there throughout the year and I thought we handled it well," Loney said. "In the Tri-unity game it gave us a little bit of trouble at the end of that game, they pressed us and went on a little run. We were expecting a press, but obviously Southfield is long and athletic so you can't really prepare for it, as far as in practice you can't simulate that."
The Panthers inability to break the press led to a multitude of turnovers early on and gave the Eagles easy buckets in transition that led to the large deficit.
The Eagles led 24-12 after one quarter and the deficit continued to grow as Frankfort had issues finding the bottom of the bucket — they only made three shots in the second.
Southfield Christian took a 22-point lead into halftime and kept control throughout the third even though they only made four shots. Newbold was the bright spot for Frankfort in the second half as he was the only Panther to score in the third quarter when he made nine of his 17 points.
The Eagles only shot 26.15 percent from the field in the second half but the Panthers had equal trouble finding the hoop — Frankfort shot 24.3 percent.
Another bright spot for the Panthers was the play of their backups late in the game. Freshman Blake Miller became the star of the show after scoring seven points, grabbing two rebounds and snagging two steals in the last four minutes. The entire Breslin Center erupted after Miller nailed a 3-pointer and the fans from all over the state joined in the excitement for the Panthers' future.
The Breslin was filled with the Frankfort faithful and they stuck with the Panthers until the end. Loney was elated with the support and noted that the community has helped them reach this point.
"You see the crowd out there and what kind of community we come from," he said. "We are down 30 points and they are cheering like we are up. As a coach, I really can't really explain the feeling you get when you see that. As a coach I am beyond happy, the future is going to be bright in Frankfort and we plan on being back here."
As for the players, the environment and experience was awe-inspiring and the underclassmen now know what it is like to be on the biggest stage in high school basketball.
"The fans and the crowd, it was so much different than back home,” Frankfort senior forward Jack Reznich said. “To be able to see all our fans, come out and see the (U-D) Jesuit school, all of them cheering for us. Just having everybody here, see all the lights and noise, it was a crazy feeling. It was life-changing.”
The upperclassmen have been an integral part of this historic run and even though they lost, the seniors felt they made a name for Frankfort.
"It feels great (to be here), mostly because no one expected us to be this good," Frankfort senior Conner Smith said. "We are really happy with how we played this weekend and we felt like we competed and showed everyone that we are a serious playoff contender."
The Panthers were the fourth team from the Northwest Conference to make it to a championship game in the last three years and the teams from Northern Michigan have made it a habit to appear at the Breslin Center.
"It makes a name for our conference," Loney said. "Every year it is tough, we play in one of the toughest conferences up north. It can be anybody any year out of that conference and you have to come to play every single night ... it kind of prepares you for games like this. You never know who is going to come out."
As for Southfield Christian, they were unsure of their chances at repeat after losing two key starters to transfers and had to reevaluate their team after starting the season 2-5.
“Our conversation repeatedly after a couple of those games was we’ve gotta choose if we’re either going to be great, of if you’re going to be OK and we’re going to be OK with being .500 and just being average,” Southfield Christian coach Josh Baker recalled Saturday. “Beat some teams, and lose to some better teams and call it a season.
“What are we going to do here? So as a team, we just collectively decided we were going to put in more work, and we were going to put in more time and … we’re just going to give extra effort. That’s the only thing we know how to do.”
Sanders and junior Da'Jion Humphrey had to increase their roles after the losses and filled in gracefully to the tune of 39 combined points — Sanders netted 19 and Humphrey added 20.
For the Eagles, this title was sweeter than the others because they had to overcome the obstacles of losing top players and having unsure expectations.
"This is very sweet. I’m not going to lie to you,” Eagles guard Humphrey said. “We worked hard – me, Jon (Sanders), everyone on the team, we put in countless hours. And as you can see, it pays off. Southfield Christian basketball is still here, and we’re still thriving.”
Noah Rheker also added 10 points for the Eagles.
Newbold had 17 points and seven rebounds, Miller was the second-leading Panthers scorer with 7 points, followed by Luke Hammon and Reznich with five points each.
The Panthers will lose six seniors, including four of their starting five (Newbold, Reznich, Smith and Ethan Ness) to graduation. Sophomore Jack Stefanski will be the only returning starter next season.
"This is very sweet. I’m not going to lie to you,” Eagles junior guard Da’Jion Humphrey said. “We worked hard – me, Jon (Sanders), everyone on the team, we put in countless hours. And as you can see, it pays off. Southfield Christian basketball is still here, and we’re still thriving.”
“I was really trying to bring a spark, because I knew our biggest emphasis was to try to pressure the ball and really get after it,” Rheker said. “So I just really tried to set the tone and let these guys pick it up after me.”