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Banner season continues for Walled Lake Northern, as Knights beat Bogie Lake rival Lakeland for inaugural LVC tournament title

Banner season continues for Walled Lake Northern, as Knights beat Bogie Lake rival Lakeland for inaugural LVC tournament title
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Feb 21, 11:50pm

COMMERCE TWP.  — Despite just 17 years passing since Walled Lake Northern opened to students in 2002, there has been plenty of time for the Knights’ various athletic programs to add banners celebrating their successes in the school’s gymnasium — which wasn’t actually finished until 2003.

The boys basketball program only has one of those banners dedicated to it.

In large, bold print, all capitals, it says “MENS BASKETBALL — DISTRICT CHAMPIONS — 2009-10.”

That’s it. Nothing else.

Well, times are a changin’ — and, theoretically, so are banners.

The need for that banner to come down from the rafters and be updated only grew on Thursday, though, as the Knights beat rival White Lake Lakeland, 29-26, to win the inaugural Lakes Valley Conference tournament championship.

[Highlights from this game can be seen on State Champs! High School Sports show on Fox Sports Detroit at 9 a.m. on Sunday.]

“Ever since freshman year, ever since I came into school, I’ve looked up into those rafters, and that’s all I want to do, is put up banners. Be a part of a team that can accomplish so much. And I love my guys, and I love my great coaching staff,” said 6-foot-7 senior Jack McGuire, knowing that the Knights (18-2, 7-1 LVC) have to face Lakeland (13-6, 6-2 LVC) again in the district opener on Monday.

“Don’t get me wrong: This one feels good. But we’re really focused on this next game. We’re going to adjust mistakes that we made. They’re going to be better, too, because they’re going to adjust mistakes they made. And we’re gonna battle it out.”

Anytime the two schools get together — in any sport — it’s a battle.

There’s a reason it’s called “The Battle of Bogie Lake Road” around those parts, as the two schools are almost on top of each other, just a few clicks of the odometer down the same winding road, just south of M-59 in western Oakland County.

“One mile, door to door. The kids all know each other. We’ve got two natural rivals, along with Milford — that’s a whole ‘nother story,” Lakeland coach Ron Thompson said. “But one mile down. I used to coach here for 10 years, too, so it’s a little bittersweet coming back here.”

The two schools might each have rivalries with the others in their school systems — Walled Lake Western and Walled Lake Central for Northern, and Huron Valley Schools’ other high school, Milford, for Lakeland — but there’s something special reserved for their next-door neighbors.

“It’s crazy. I love it,” McGuire said. “It’s right next door. You can just feel the tension every time everybody steps on the court. It’s there. It’s just there.”

That knowledge is part of the reason that it wound up being such a low-scoring contest. And it’s part of the reason it’ll be hard for either squad to revamp anything considerably before Monday’s rematch.

“It is a unique situation,” Thompson said. “We do what we do. We’re a man team, we do a good job on our back line, but if we need to go out and get them, we can do that, too. But we are who we are. At this point of the year, I think it would be a disservice — we played two tight games with them. It is what it is at this point of the year, and I think it would be a disservice if we tried some thing too crazy next game.”

Both teams did what they do in Thursday’s game, grinding out time, grinding out each possession, and keeping the pace slow — and, as a result, the scoring low.

After Patrick McDonald’s 3-pointer tied the game at 23-23 with 5:30 left in the fourth, both teams began to hold the ball. Between then and the final 40 seconds, there were only a handful of possessions, and six total shots taken.

“It’s just that kind of game. Both teams shortened their benches a little bit, so there was a little fatigue from the grind out there. A lot of clutching and grabbing, both ways.

It was just one of those things where, it is what it is. It’s not going to get into the 80s now, with four minutes to go, so let’s just conserve our energy just a little bit, and be smart with our passes. Limit the risk, I guess,” Northern coach Gjon Djokaj said.

“One thing about our league — and I’m so proud to be a part of it — is that every coach prepares their kids. Every coach in our league has an emphasis on defense, and this is what you get. I’ve been a part of a lot of leagues, almost all of them, where they’re up-and-down, and fun to watch. But once you play in this type of league, and in this type of environment, you learn to love it. It’s all about toughness, and every team we play is tough as nails, and I think that’s why most of the teams in our league have such good records is that defense travels. Anywhere you play, you have a chance.”

McGuire hit his half-hook in the lane with 1:05 left, putting Northern up 25-23. Lakeland called a timeout with 33.1 left, and drew up a play to get a 3-point attempt for Trent Farquhar, who’d hit two 3s in the first half.

“He had a great look. Drew it up out of the timeout. Came out clean. Looked really good. He’s our shooter, and we got a great shot for our shooter. Just didn’t go down, unfortunately, but hey — I’ll take that any day of the week,” Thompson said.

“Last time we played them, they held the ball a little bit on us, too. … For us, that’s OK. A one-possession game. They’re an 18-2 team. If they want to let us play them to a one-possession game, late in the game, we’re gonna let them do it.”

Farquhar’s shot didn’t go down, but the Eagles did get free throws for Jordan Shaw, who split the pair with 24.2 left to make it a one-point game, 25-24.

Then the Eagles had to foul — first to get into the bonus, then to send the Knights to the line.

Andre Price hit two free throws with 19.7 seconds left to make it a three-point game, 27-24, then split a pair with 10.6 left to make it a four-point game, 28-24.

McDonald was fouled attempting a 3-pointer with half a second remaining, and hit two of three for the final margin.

Just three players scored for Northern: McGuire with nine, Price with 16, and Kevyn Robertson with four. Lakeland had six players score, led by McDonald’s 10.

Northern jumped out to a 9-5 lead in the first quarter, then didn’t score again in the frame, as Lakeland ran off seven straight points to lead 12-9. The Eagles hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter to just two free throws for Northern, giving Lakeland an 18-11 lead at the half, but Northern ran off eight straight points in the third quarter, sending the game to the fourth with the Knights down four, 23-19.

“We’re on winter break, and we’ve been putting up a lot of shots. There is no doubt that we’re in a little bit of a shooting funk, but I have no doubt we’re going to snap out of it,” Djokaj said. “We just take it one play at a time, one possession at a time. We just talked about that all of them will add up at the end. There’s not one that’s more important. And I think our team held on to that belief that we’ll string a couple of possessions in a row. We were able to get it inside to Jack in the second half, and open it up there, and spread them out a little bit, and then we were able to do what we do, which is get in the lane, get second opportunities, and make our free throws.”

The banner season — which saw Northern claim its first-ever division title, tying with Waterford Mott for the LVC regular-season crown — has stirred up interest in basketball on the Northern campus for the first time in a while.

“I’ll be honest with you. We played on Dec. 7, and we had 14 people in the stands. We had a home game against Flint Hamady, and we probably had 20 kids in the stands. The last four or five home games, it’s just been getting bigger and bigger,” Djokaj said. “Play Monday at Lakeland, and it’s going to be another crazy crowd. The two schools are separated by 1.2 miles. You’re on the road, but it’s almost like a home game. Both teams travel well. There’s a lot of excitement about our program right now. This was a championship game, but honestly we’ve been using all our regular-season games, scrimmages to prepare for the state tournament, and now the real season starts, so let’s see what we can do.”