A s the buzzer sounded, the celebration ensued. The Iron Mountain Mountaineers leaped into each other’s arms while their screams of joy filled the Lake City gymnasium. Marcus Johnson being Marcus, ran from his seat in the stands to join them. He was wearing one of the gold Iron Mountain warm-up shirts with the figurative “FAMILY” emblazoned across the chest which highlights the bond within the program. Except it’s a literal term for him. His dad is the coach, his brother an assistant, so he’s as invested as ever.
I Amidst the chaotic celebration, Johnson and Foster Wonders found each other and embraced for a lengthy hug. It was reminiscent of the exchange they shared two years ago in Petoskey after defeating Sanford Meridian in a quarterfinal matchup. Back then, it was Johnson who ignited the celebration by running towards Iron Mountain’s bench and fans, screaming, “We’re going to the Breslin!”
On Tuesday, once the initial celebration on the court subsided, the players made their way to the locker room. As they passed the student section, Wonders turned to them and delivered the same proclamation Johnson made two years ago: “We’re going to the Breslin!”
“It feels great,” Iron Mountain coach Bucky Johnson said after his team’s 53-50 win over McBain. “I’ve been around these kids for a number of years; we go way back. I know they’re realizing their dream, and it’s a dream of everybody’s. Not many kids get a chance to go to the Breslin Center once, let alone twice.”
As a preeminent program within the state for the last three years, it’s been quite the emotional rollercoaster for Iron Mountain. There was the state runner-up finish in 2019, then the inability to contend for a championship the following season due to the pandemic. This season was plagued with uncertainty. There were delays. Questions if there would even be a season. The setbacks were draining.
Then there were the basketball elements to consider.
Sure, having the best player in the state is a luxury, but the Mountaineers still had to facilitate a lineup with four new starters and nearly an entirely new rotation. The team then slimmed its roster to eight players in hopes of reducing its exposure to COVID.
“It feels so good,” Wonders said. “After last year, it makes it that much sweeter this year to get there. Everything that we had to overcome, with starting late with COVID, having eight guys and four new starters this year, I’m just so proud of everyone. We really dug deep these last few games and gave it our all. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
After rolling through its UP schedule, Iron Mountain (18-0) has now faced legitimate adversity in the postseason. No. 2 Oscoda and its dangerous shotmakers gave the Mountaineers their biggest halftime deficit of seven in the regional finals. On Tuesday, McBain’s length and sharp halfcourt execution put Iron Mountain in a quick nine-point hole, the largest in the opening eight minutes the Mountaineers have trailed this season. McBain (16-1) made 7 of 9 shots, including 2 of 3 from 3 for a 19-12 lead at the end of the first quarter. For just the second time this season, Iron Mountain’s stifling defense appeared vulnerable.
For as much as each fanbase rode the refs all night, they do deserve credit for how they officiated the game under the rim. Verticality on challenged shots was rewarded and not penalized with pointless fouls. Bailouts were not coming on out-of-control shots that were flung at the rim. The ticky-tacky stuff doesn’t belong in March, or I suppose April, either. All of this is to say that when Iron Mountain adjusted and started to contest shots in the lane, the team was able to do so with the size and length of Jurgen Kleiman and Bryce Pietrantonio. Both players were key in flustering McBain’s repeated drives, sometimes forcing the Ramblers to adjust in mid-air to avoid contact.
Following its hot start, McBain missed its first eight shots of the second quarter and would have gone scoreless if it wasn’t for Mason Heuker’s corner 3 before the halftime buzzer.
“I thought we were screening and running our offense,” McBain coach Bruce Koopman said of his team’s start. “Then we got away from it a little bit, but give them credit. They started plugging it up in the middle and jamming us a little bit, and we didn’t handle it real well.”
The most interesting subplot for any Iron Mountain game is how a new opponent elects to defend Wonders. He’s seen triangle-and-2s, box-and-1s, straight double teams and other junk defenses that have tried to contain him to no avail. McBain had a taller lineup, with four starters appearing 6-4 or taller, so its length made the matchup with Wonders interesting.
McBain had the boldness to start what no other team has tried before: defend Wonders straight up with a single defender. Wonders must have been salivating when he saw one player across from him as he handled the ball. No overly aggressive help coming to him when he caught the ball, or two people breathing down him as he attempted to make a move. It must have felt like a bit of freedom.
Well, a putback and a midrange jumper he essentially walked into put an end to that just two minutes into the game. The double started to come when he made his move inside the arc. It was inevitable. Still, it made no difference, just as it hasn’t all season long. With his team down nine, he started to get it going on offense. He split two defenders for a layup at the end of the first quarter before knocking down a step-back 3 off a crossover to start the second period. Later, he converted a midrange hanging jumper for a 7-0 run to cut McBain’s lead to 19-17. At this point, he had 15 points.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Koopman said. “He hit shots 10 feet behind the line with two guys in his face. He’s a great player. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently defensively other than come out and press a little earlier, but hindsight is always better.”
Wonders lit up the UP on a regular basis, but if there were any reservations to others around the state whether he could do it against premier competition in Division 3, those concerns have been answered. Against No. 2 Oscoda while facing a constant double team, he scored 31 points on 12 of 18 shooting, including 5 of 9 from 3. McBain entered as the No. 1-ranked team in the final AP poll and versus its version of a double team, Wonders recorded 38 points on 15 of 28 shooting from the field. So against the two top-ranked teams in the state, Wonders managed to score 69 points, shoot 59% overall (27-46) and 44% from 3 (8-18).
“I think just attacking the open spots,” he said of the key to scoring against double teams. “Obviously with different defenses, it’s always different with whether there’s another guy running at me or a guy coming up to help. I just have to make my reads. I’m just so used to it now that it’s just like second nature and making the right read and going to the open spot.”
At this point it may be fair to wonder who exactly has the advantage when Iron Mountain’s opponents attempt to double Wonders. He and the rest of the team have seen it numerous times this season. It’s routine at this point. Whereas how often are the Mountaineers’ opponents practicing or having to run a double team defense before this season? It seems like it would put them a bit outside their comfort zone. When Wonders beats the double with a crossover, he knows where he’s going and how to attack, but it can appear the two defenders aren’t exactly sure what their responsibilities are or certain how far over they’re supposed to follow. The bit of indecisiveness is more than enough for Wonders to create and score.
As for McBain’s size, it never really played an impact.
“Obviously when guys are taller like that, I think we have more of an advantage,” Wonders said. “We can attack them because we’re pretty athletic off the dribble, so I thought we did a decent job getting to the paint. I thought we persevered and started playing a lot stronger.”
Offensively, McBain’s third quarter wasn’t much better than the second. The Ramblers made just 2 of 8 shot attempts. Add in the second quarter, and for that two-period stretch, the team was just 3 for 17 from the field.
As McBain struggled, Iron Mountain’s supporting cast started to make an impact. Caleb Evosevich-Hynes started the third quarter with a steal into a transition layup before Kleiman would score a putback.
Similar to the Oscoda matchup, Wonders appeared content with starting the second half versus McBain as a distributor, hunting down the openings for his teammates when he was doubled. After Kleiman’s score, he drove and drew numerous defenders before kicking it out to Evosevich-Hynes who rotated the ball over to Ricky Brown. Left wide open, Brown swished the 3 to cap a 7-0 run, giving the Mountaineers a 29-22 lead.
“That’s been our formula for success all year,” Johnson said. “That’s the key to our team. We want them all to keep attacking, and they did. It’s been a formula for success. I think we got it at the right time in the third quarter, and it kind of put us over the hump.”
Even while looking to facilitate, Wonders still made his mark in the third. With the clock winding down, Wonders started his move to the left. Sensing a wall of defenders, he stepped back from his defender to launch a contested 3. Swish. Wonders’ 3 gave his team a 38-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter. It was the third time Wonders scored to beat the buzzer. He had previously scored layups before the end of the first and second quarters.
McBain attempted to rally and managed to cut the deficit to three in the final seconds before Wonders converted two free throws to seal the game’s outcome. The Mountaineers will now face Schoolcraft at 12:30 p.m. EDT at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Thursday.
Two years ago Wonders made his mark to the state in East Lansing. He scored 28 points in the semifinals to knock off Detroit Edison, who was the defending state champion at the time. Then he recorded 20 points in the finals versus Pewamo-Westphalia. Now he enters the state’s biggest stage as one of the more well-known entities. He’s a Mr. Basketball Finalist and an overwhelming favorite for Division 3 AP Player of the Year.
“I just have to go at it like every other game,” he said of his approach to the semifinals this time around. “Just know that I put the work in to be successful and just go out there and play my game and have fun. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I can’t wait to play again Thursday in the Breslin.”
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