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D1 SEMIS: Emoni Bates leads Railsplitters to first-ever title game, beating Howell in semis

D1 SEMIS: Emoni Bates leads Railsplitters to first-ever title game, beating Howell in semis
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Mar 15, 2:00pm

EAST LANSING — The Bates Show has brought Ypsilanti Lincoln to the state finals for the first time ever.

But it’s a show with a lot of co-stars.

The top-ranked player in the nation in the 2022 class, Emoni Bates had a double-double with 31 points, 14 rebounds, leading the Railsplitters to a 72-56 win over Howell in Friday’s first Division 1 semifinal at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.

The Railsplitters (22-4) will face top-ranked Detroit U-D Jesuit (24-2) — a 63-25 winner over Okemos in the other D1 semifinal on Friday — in Saturday’s championship game at 12:15 p.m.

It may seem like this has come out of nowhere for the Railsplitters, but fourth-year coach Jesse Davis envisioned it unfolding like this when he took over at Lincoln.

“I envisioned everything we’re doing right now, and I just worked toward it,” Davis said. “Of course, I need these guys to believe in what I’m saying, and what I’m doing, and what I’m trying to teach them — but yes, I’ve envisioned this happening for our program.”

Like any coach, he needs good players to make those visions into reality.

Certainly Bates fits that mold, but he’s not the only one that has contributed to getting the Railsplitters here: He’s less the cornerstone of a building than he is the capstone to an arch — the finishing piece that holds it all together.

Bates envisioned this happening, too.

“Yeah, I expected it. My teammates, when I was in eighth grade, I told them ‘I’m coming.’ I just told them I was going to help them. And told them that if we kept working hard every day, we’d be here,” the 15-year-old said, noting that he had confidence in that, “because I know I trust in them, and they trust in me. That’s how we got here today.”

The players who came before him had to buy into this freshman phenom coming in and taking all the big shots, getting the ball in all the key moments.

“Me and Tahj (Chatman) have been here for four years, so we know what we have to do. We’ve been doing the dirty work for four years,” said Amari Frye, who had 12 points Friday. “So to bring someone in like Emoni, to help us finish what we started, it just helps a lot.”

And the added pressure from all the attention that Bates brings? Chatman welcomes it.

“I been on varsity for four years, so the added pressure — I tell him (Bates) all the time, just put that pressure that he gets, and put it on me. I feel like I’m here for him,” said the senior, who added 10 points. “We all embrace him. There’s no jealousy, none of that. We support him all the way.”

It certainly helps when that star is 6-foot-9 and nearly unguardable by most high school defenders. Howell’s Josh Palo drew the assignment first on Friday, though he got hep from Tony Honkala and Jake Sergeant at different times.

“Yeah, I was definitely looking forward to guarding him. He was was just making tough shots — that was the game-plan, to make him take tough shots — and he was knocking them down. Couldn’t do anything about them,” said Palo, who had 16 points to lead Howell (20-7). “It was fun, a battle all game. He’s taller than me, so he was just shooting over my head. Couldn’t really do anything about it.”

Honkala had 12 and Jake Sergeant 11 for Howell, while Chatman added 10 for Lincoln.

The Railsplitters pushed the lead to double digits in the final minute of the first quarter, leading 20-10 after one, 37-22 at the half, and 50-35 headed to the fourth.

The Highlanders got in the hole early, and never could string together enough baskets and stops to get out.

“Yeah, that ended up proving to be true. I don’t think we were too down about it, but we just couldn’t get too many shots that we typically hit to fall. But they did a great job, they played great defense, and forced us to take some quick looks, and maybe some of those easier shots were a little quicker out of our hands than they typically are,” Howell coach Nick Simon said. “I don’t think we got too down in the dumps about the lead, it’s just that we couldn’t make those clutch shots to bring that lead back.”

The big stage didn’t seem to impact the Railsplitters at all.

“Our guys have played in big arenas. We played at Eastern Michigan this year, twice. Big crowd. We went to Grand Rapids, played against Benton Harbor,” Davis said. “So I think our guys are used to the atmosphere being loud, with a lot of people. They did a great job tonight, starting off the way we were supposed to start off. We wanted to get after them on the defensive end, and I just think that led to our offense.”

Despite six regular-season losses — all but one to ranked teams — the Highlanders thought they could get to this stage, as well, even though no Howell team had done so since 1927.

“All these guys believed they could do this for a long time, so I don’t think it was just something that happened at the end of the year. I knew we could do it, and they knew we could do it all year, but we just went through a lot of those tough battles, so when we got up against tough opponents in the playoffs, we were pretty used to that kind of competition. We weren’t fearful of it. We respected them, but we weren’t fearful of it, at all,” Simon said, thanking the players “for giving us this unbelievable ride this year,” as well as the Howell community for its support of a nearly unprecedented run.
“We talked about that in the locker room. I think it’s been one of the bigger events for the entire Howell community since I’ve been there. I’ve been here for about 10 years, and I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that brought the community together in such a positive way. It’s something that we said 50 years ago we’ll come back, and we’ll be talking about it still, and it’ll be a team that’s remembered forever. I think it legitimized the program overall.”