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D4 SEMIS: Frankfort survives 23-point comeback by Wyoming Tri-unity Christian, moves on to first-ever championship game

D4 SEMIS: Frankfort survives 23-point comeback by Wyoming Tri-unity Christian, moves on to first-ever championship game
BY: SCOTT BURNSTEIN Mar 14, 10:27pm

EAST LANSING — The trip to the state finals for Frankfort was ride-or-die affair.

Surviving a furious second-half rally by Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian, where the Panthers saw a 23-point lead dwindle and turn into a two-point deficit, Frankfort hung tough and came away with a heart-pounding win.

The 44-43 victory Thursday night in the Division 4 semifinals at the Breslin Center on the campus of Michigan State University reserved them a spot in the program’s first state championship game.

Senior guard Ethan Hess’ free throw with six ticks left on the clock won it for Frankfort. Tri-Unity Christian (22-4) drove the length of the floor on the ensuing possession but failed to get off a potential game-winner before the final horn sounded.

“It feels good to make the shot that counted the most,” Hess said. “I just wanted to stay focused and do my job. Luckily, it worked out for the best.”

Thursday’s nail-biter kept up a common theme for this current Frankfort tournament run — it was the Panthers fourth game in tourney action to be decided by three points or less. Earlier in the week, Frankfort squeaked past Big Rapids Crossroads 53-51 in overtime.

“We’ve been finding ways to win games like this all season and throughout the whole tournament,” first-year Panthers coach Dan Loney said. “This is one resilient bunch.”

Loney took over a Panthers squad back in the summer that lost its entire playing rotation from last season. The current Frankfort lineup had played a total of 15 minutes of varsity competition entering the 2018-2019 campaign.

Panthers senior Connor Smith was undaunted.

“We love proving people wrong and that’s what we’ve done,” he said.

On Thursday, Frankfort (21-5) was smoking out of the gate, grabbing a 26-12 halftime lead and then ballooning its advantage on the scoreboard to 35-12 late in the third quarter when Will Newbold hit Smith for an easy deuce under the rim. Tri-Unity Christian didn’t score its first bucket of the second half until the 1:45 mark of the third.

Going on a frenzied 27-2 run, Tri-Unity pushed in front 39-37 with 3:58 remaining in the game on Elijah Bagdero’s basket off a feed from freshman point guard Brady Titus. A 3-pointer by Ness gave Frankfort the lead back, however Tri-Unity wasn’t done. Titus’ driving hoop with 10 seconds remaining knotted things 43-43.

One of Tri-Unity’s players appeared unaware of the tie score though, and fouled Hess (11 points) out by the 3-point line on the left side of the floor, putting the Panthers’ senior guard on the line to punch a ticket to the state finals.

“He was just playing hard, mistakes happen,” said longtime Tri-Unity coach Mark Keeler of the sequence.

Keeler has been on the bench for the Defenders for 32 seasons. He’s won four state titles since 1996, most recently in 2011.

“This was a great game, a great comeback,” he said. “I was disappointed in our start, we had some jitters. You never know. The Breslin Center can do different things to different people. The comeback showed what we’re all about in the end though, what these kids are made of. You can't take that away from them.”

Will Newbold sheeted 16 points and seven rebounds for Frankfort. Tri-Unity Christian senior captain Bennett Sinner scored 16 points and hauled in eight boards in the loss. Bagdero bagged a double-double of 10 points and 13 rebounds out of the frontcourt.

Frankfort will now face defending state champion Southfield Christian (20-6) in Saturday morning’s state finals. The Panthers are making only their second appearance in the final four opposed to Southfield Christian’s six trips in eight years, including four crownings.

“If we get down, we get right back up, that’s the type of team we have … We want to start our own legacy and this is go time,” Frankfort senior Jack Stefanski said.