The gym was cleared out after the Class A semifinal between Pontiac Northern and Lansing Everett to make way for the day's third contest...the long awaited match-up between Detroit Renaissance and Wyoming Park. Even though the interest in the game was pretty high, it still came as a surprise to many when it set a high school semifinal attendance record. It was sold out. Scalpers were selling tickets for 50 dollars apiece outside the Jack Breslin Center. Renaissance stars Joe Crawford and Malik Hairston have been like traveling rock group all year, playing before packed high school gyms. However, the intrigue surrounding this particular contest was heightened when Drew Neitzel won the state of Michigan's Mr. Basketball award by an overwhelming margin. Some in the arena merely questioned if he deserved to win by so large a margin, while others questioned whether he deserved the award at all. All of those questions would be answered in a game that was every bit as entertaining as the build-up forecasted. If fans didn't respect each of these teams before the game, they surely did afterward.
The Renaissance Phoenix shot out the gate with a flurry of points, jumping out to an early 11-1 lead and ending the first quarter up 27-8. Drew Neitzel was hassled by a double team every time he touched the ball, forcing him to give it up. His offense was non-existent in the first quarter as he was responsible for only six points in the stanza. On the other hand, Joe Crawford and Malik Hairston played with a visible intensity to start the game. Joe drove to the hole strong and scored 11 first quarter points. That mentality was infectious, as sophomore point guard Tajuan Porter chipped in 9 points in the first. Wyoming Park looked like it was down for the count until Mr. Neitzel showed why he deserved to be called Mr. Basketball.
The 'guard by committee' strategy employed in the first quarter broke down in the second. Instead of picking away when doubled, Drew cut right back to the ball after he passed it. He proceeded to dismantle the Renaissance lead BY HIMSELF. Neitzel, who exploded for 17 points in the quarter, knew that he had to take over for his team to have a shot. "I tried to score early," said Neitzel. "I wanted to put the team on my shoulder." GBW's correspondent at the game, "DOTMAN", indicated that the point guard's success was ultimately a story of match-ups. "Renaissance started with Adam Sabree on Neitzel but Drew was too quick for him. Then they put little Tajuan Porter on him and he was more than fast enough to keep up with Drew. However, Neitzel was able to take advantage of the size differential (5-6 155 lbs. vs 5-11 175 lbs.) by going right at his diminutive counterpart. Drew just muscled him. He would throw his body into him to create space and get his shot off, or just jump right over him. He just scored in a variety of different ways; runners jumpers, right-handed, left-handed ... you name it." Neitzel had the Renaissance guards chasing him all over the court, leaving his teammates wide open. Unfortunately for Park's floor general, his cohorts fumbled most of his beautiful passes out of bounds.
Things got testy midway through the quarter when Joe Crawford, in an uncharacteristic show of emotion, picked up a technical foul for slamming the ball in frustration after a questionable foul call. With two minutes to go in the half, the future Kentucky Wildcat picked up another foul, which forced him to sit down with three. Though the Phoenix still ended the half with a 9 point lead (38-29), they were still a bit flustered by Park's comeback. "We just had to regroup in the third quarter," Crawford said. "Coach told me to stay focused."
The Vikings came out of the locker room and picked up right where they left off, outscoring Renaissance 7-3 in the opening minutes of the period to make the score 41-38 at the 5:41 mark. Then Coach Mark White of Renaissance employed a new strategy that would change the complexion of the game. He placed his 6-6 star forward Malik Hairston on Drew Neitzel. The match up seemed to really disrupt Neitzel's attack ... something which Hairston knew he could do. "I've been guarding point guards my whole career ... I just happened to shoot up to 6-6, " replied Hairston when asked about guarding Neitzel. After scoring 23 of his team's 27 points in the first two quarters, he scored only 4 in the third. Still, the underdog Vikings cut the deficit to 6, 52-46, entering the final stanza.
It seemed as though it was anyone's game in the fourth quarter. Wyoming Park continued to pull closer, cutting the lead to three points (at 52-49) on a huge 3-pointer from Neitzel. The Phoenix responded with an 8-0 run that was highlighted by a play from Hairston that would energize his team and their fans down the stretch. At the 4:35 mark, Malik received a pass on the baseline, proceeded to attack the rim with authority, and threw down a ferocious slam to make the score 50-49. On defense Hairston just wouldn't let Neitzel get anything. The Park star got a few more points on the break, but everything else was stymied. Hairston's efforts allowed Renaissance to continue to widen the gap and they went on to the 78 - 63 victory. Joe Crawford and Malik Hairston both had 21 points. Drew Neitzel ended the game with 36 points -- and with the respect of all his doubters.
For the full boxscore click here.
The Phoenix now advance to the state finals to take on a scrappy DeWitt team that upset Muskegon Heights in the other class B semifinal in overtime, 59-55.