BY DAN STICKRADT
LAKE ORION — Just a few short weeks ago, Tom Risi wrote a brief challenge up on the board in the team meeting room for his players to see. Perhaps his players took the message to heart.
Risi, Lake Orion’s first-year boys basketball coach, told his team “to make some history” in the postseason. The Dragons are doing just that.
Just 3-18 a year ago and 11-9 in the regular season this year, Lake Orion captured its first regional title since 1925 — just the ninth year that the Michigan High School Athletic Association even existed — with a 48-42 victory over Waterford Mott on Lake Orion’s home floor.
The previous regional title came as a Class C high school and it came in a different format, as there were 16 regional champions back then instead of eight in the modern day format. Lake Orion is now a large Class A high school and is making some school history with its Cinderella-like run.
“I wrote ‘let’s make history’ (on the board),” said Risi. “The last regional title was 1925, so it’s about writing history. I told these kids that they’ll come back in 20 years with their families, look on that board and it’ll mean something to them.”
With the 87-year drought coming to an end, Lake Orion (17-9) will now play in the state quarterfinals for the first time and will face Macomb L’Anse Creuse North (21-5) Tuesday at 8 p.m. at U-D Mercy for the right to go to Final Four for the first time in school history.
“The emphasis was to come out from the opening tip to give it all they go and I think they did that,” smiled Risi, who was hired last summer to take over a team that suffered through a major rebuilding year in 2010-11. “We knew there would be no tomorrow if they didn’t.”
Mott (18-7) led 3-0 early on a three-pointer by junior guard Kahlil Malone, who finished with 19 points. The Corsairs struggled against the Dragons’ size and intensity, finishing the night 15-for-47 from the floor, 8-for-15 from the foul line and just 3-for-12 from three-point range.
After its early 3-0 deficit Lake Orion answered with an 8-0 run and took the lead for good on a layup from senior Brad Watterworth.
The Dragons’ frontcourt of 6-foot-5 sophomore John McCarty, 6-foot-8 Watterworth, 6-foot-6 junior Chaz Miller and 6-foot-5 junior Roman Kuster were too much for Mott too overcome, as they combined for 37 of the team’s 48 points and 25 of the team’s 29 rebounds in the contest.
“We have really come together as a unit the past couple of weeks. We have really been playing together as a team and we’ve all stepped up and making plays,” said McCarty, the team’s leading scorer and second leading rebounder this season. “No it’s been a bunch of wins (in the postseason).
“This is big for the school and big for the basketball program,” added McCarty. “We’re starting to turn things around, too.”
Lake Orion led 8-5 after the first quarter and 18-13 at the half. The Dragons slowly pulled away for a 31-22 lead at the end of the third quarter band held a 10-point advantage (33-23) with 7:22 left before Mott staged a late-night rally.
The Corsairs actually held a 20-17 scoring edge in the final frame, but could not cut the lead down to less than three points. Mott closed to within three points with 58.4 seconds left when senior guard Hunter Reiche drilled a three-pointer from the corner.
Lake Orion sank 13-of-18 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 6-of-8 free throws in the intense final minute, with Mott only mustering a free throw and a runner-in-the-lane by 6-foot-6 senior Brody Losh, the final bucket coming with 20.6 seconds left.
Miller led Lake Orion with 15 points and eight rebounds. McCarty added 10 points with seven boards and two blocked shots, Watterworth had six points and four rebounds and Kuster supplied some inspired play off the bench with six points and six rebounds.
The Dragons’ backcourt face consistent full-court pressure in the second half, with Justin Walukonis picking up six points, four steals, four rebounds and three assists, while Devonte Kruse scored five with four assists.
Mott won its first district title in 30 years last week and played for its first regional championship. The Corsairs never got into any type of offensive flow in the contest.
“We did not come ready to play,” admitted Mott coach Jeff Jayson. “I don’t know what it was, but we didn’t play with the same intensity that got us here.”
Mott upset Troy in last week’s district finals and defeated Southfield, a Final Four team the past two years, in Monday’s regional semifinals.
“That’s what is so disappointing. We beat some good programs to get here and we had a chance, but we didn’t play at the level we had in recent weeks,” added Jayson.
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