Wednesday’s regional championship contest was similar to a heavyweight prize fight as Hillman and Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy exchanged powerful blows for 32 minutes, giving an electric crowd in Houghton Lake everything you could ask for in a March basketball contest.
A postseason matchup which featuring plenty of ties, lead changes and huge momentum swings made for a wild back and forth game, but in the end, it was the Hillman Tigers doing what they do in March, and that’s win championships as Hillman earned a hard-fought 65-53 victory over Sacred Heart to advance to the Division 4 quarterfinals.
“We made adjustments throughout the game and especially at halftime which proved to be key for us down the stretch. We picked up the intensity on the defensive end in the second half and cleaned up our play offensively and we had another good all-around team effort with a lot of guys contributing. The deeper we get, the more crucial that is going to be,” Hillman coach Eric Muszynski said.
The Irish opened the first quarter scoring the game’s first seven points to force a Hillman timeout.
The Tigers responded with nine unanswered to take a lead of their own before the two schools played to a 13-13 tie after one quarter.
March is all about unsung heroes and one of those heroes for Hillman in the first half was Braylon Firman who was scorching from beyond the long line, burying four threes to make up for 12 of his 13 points in the first half and A.J. Jones was just as important in the second half, pouring in all 10 of his points in the final two quarters.
The Tigers took their largest lead of the half with 4:35 remaining, behind Firman and Trenton Taratuta’s 12 first half points, but the Irish cut into the deficit as Hillman held a 31-30 lead at the break.
The Irish quickly regained the lead, scoring the first bucket of the half, but like stars do, they take over games and come up big when needed. That’s exactly what Taratuta did, scoring nine more points in the third, including six straight for Hillman to give the Tigers a 42-32 lead midway through the third as Taratuta finished with a game-high 23 points.
Once again, the Irish refused to go away, responding with seven straight to cut the Hillman lead to three, before the Tigers closed the quarter with seven unanswered of their own to take a 49-39 lead headed to the fourth.
The Tigers refused to let Sacred Heart back into the contest, closing the game strong and smart to come away with a comfortable victory in a game that was anything but, as Hillman recaptured a regional championship for the first time since 2018.
Hillman now advances to Tuesday’s quarterfinal game in Gaylord at 5:00 pm against Frankfort, with a trip to the Final Four at the Breslin Center on the line.
“It’s a great feeling to be in this position again, being regional champs and headed to the quarterfinals and one win away from going to the Breslin Center,” Muszynski said. “For us as coaches, it’s our goal to put these kids in the best possible spot to be able to make it down to East Lansing and play at the Breslin Center. We’ve all built this program to be as successful as it is, but the one thing we’re missing is that trip to the Breslin Center. It’s our goal and a dream to get there and we have another opportunity to get over the quarterfinal hump on Tuesday.”