ESCANABA - Forest Park is happy to be back here. North Central is happy that their season still has life.
The Jets received quite a scare in Monday's regional semifinal against Munising, beating the Mustangs 54-46 in overtime. Their season came 15 seconds away from a disappointing end before Jason Whitens made a miraculous three-pointer to force the extra period. He led the Jets with 22 points.
Forest Park (20-3) fell to North Central (24-0) 59-50 in this same game last season and each team returns the majority of their respective rosters. Now, the Trojans get another stab at a regional title. That was made possible after their 75-60 victory over Lake Linden-Hubbell, Monday night.
Keith?Shelton |?Daily Press
North Central’s Rob Granquist takes a jump shot as Alex Hill of Munising defends during their Class D regional semifinal game, Monday night at Escanaba.
"I left (Monday) night, very happy," said Forest Park head coach Chris Nocerini. "The team's biggest goal was to have another shot at the regional final. We wanted to play North Central, but we wanted to get back to regional final game."
The Trojans had plenty of big plays of their own in Monday's game. Austin Carlson, Forest Park's 6-foot-7 junior center made a big impact, going over the top of the Lakes' defense and scoring 20 points. The Trojans also have a very capable freshman of their own in Daniel Nocerini, who also netted 20 points.
One of the key matchups tonight should be Nocerini vs. Whitens. The two freshmen have become key components of their respective teams and each have the respect of their teammates as well. Coach Nocerini, like North Central head coach Adam Mercier said they would be comfortable with the ball in the hands of their youngest players in key situations.
"The big story with those two, is they're good friends," said Nocerini. "Jason and Daniel played basketball together in junior high. It's going to be a very competitive matchup, but those are two guys that respect each other a lot, and neither of them want to lose.
"I would be confident with Daniel taking that last shot but more importantly, his teammates would be comfortable. The biggest thing with freshmen is how his teammates handle it, and Daniel has been surrounded by great teammates."
In terms of personnel, the Trojans and Jets are practically mirror images of each other. They each feature big, physical and athletic forwards that work the ball in transition. They both like to run, they both feature perimeter shooters and inside specialists.
And this will be the third time the rivals have met this season.
"They're just athletic and big across the board. They match up well with us and vice versa," said Mercier. "It will be all about rebounding, whoever is able to get to the basket on rebounds, clear the boards and push the tempo will have the advantage."
Of course that's what both of these teams try to do on a nightly basis to win games, it's just a matter of who does it better. In the first two meetings this season, that's been North Central, but that doesn't mean the Jets have an advantage going into tonight. Mercier knows how hard it is to beat a team three times in a season. He's had to do it against Mid Peninsula, North Dickinson and Carney-Nadeau this season to reach this point, and he received those teams' best effort in the third meeting.
"In the district, there's going to be no more blowouts, You have to come mentally prepared from the start," Mercier said. "It will be physically challenging. You just have to trust your teammates, play good team basketball and execute the gameplan to the best of our ability."
The Trojans, like the Jets had the opportunity to scout their next opponent. The teams scouted each other on Monday night.
"There's no secrets between the two of us," Nocerini said. "Defensively, offensively there might be a few surprises here and there, but this time of year the coaching staff should be ready to adjust.
"I thought it was great that we got to watch the Munising game. Our kids sat and watched and picked up a few tendencies that they brought up at practice, which made me feel good as a coach."
The Trojans' X-factor is Carlson who could change the game with his ability to go over the top. The Jets have Whitens, who has shown his knack for coming up big at the right time twice already this season.
"These kids make a lot of plays down the stretch and it's been different guys all year," said Mercier. "That's the one great quality about our team - the ability to have different guys step up at different times.
"(Monday night) was the first situation where we needed a last second shot but not the first time in a situation where we were down in the final seconds. Both times Jason was the guy to step up. The free throws against Carney-Nadeau and that shot (Monday) night. With the depth and quality of our players, we're confident in their ability to step up at right time."
One thing is likely. Tonight's game should be just as entertaining and evenly matched as the last three meetings between these two teams.
"We played three times last year, three times this year. The target has been on our back on all season and this is nothing new to us," said Mercier. "Black and red and red and black, similar styles, similar colors, and similar fanfare. We're looking forward to another great atmosphere with an opportunity to win a regional championship."