When Lincoln sophomore sensation Emoni Bates gets rolling, there isn’t much opposing teams can do to slow the roll.
But Huron isn’t your average team. No. 7 Ann Arbor Huron withstood a 20-point second-half effort from Bates to hold off No. 10 Ypsilanti Lincoln 64-54 in a clash of two of the state’s premier basketball programs on Tuesday night at Eastern Michigan University.
The game, featuring the two teams winning their respective divisions of the Southeastern Conference, was moved from Lincoln to Eastern Michigan’s Convocation Center to support a large number of spectators. As it turned out, thousands of fans, including Michigan basketball head coach Juwan Howard, poured in to witness the game. It did not disappoint.
“What a great environment for a high school game and great experience for our kids,” Huron coach Waleed Samaha said. “Let’s be clear, if Emoni [Bates] isn’t a part of this, it’s not happening. We’re all grateful to Emoni and his family because he’s a special player and an even better kid.”
Many fans in particular turned out to see Bates, the nation’s top-ranked high school basketball player, hoping he would deliver another epic performance. Yet despite Bates’ 29 points, it was another player who truly stole the show.
Huron junior standout Julian Lewis did a little bit of everything for the River Rats, scoring a team-leading 20 points, blocking shots on the defensive end, and forcing Lincoln turnovers.
“Having Julian just lifts everybody. He adds so many different dimensions to our team,” Samaha said. “He’s such a presence defensively that allows other guys to play confidentially on the defensive end. Offensively, he commands so much attention that allows other guys driving lanes and shooting space. He’s an elite defender and all-around great player and unbelievable teammate.”
Huron got off to a hot start in the first quarter, outscoring Lincoln 14-8. It was able to turn turnovers and defensive rebounds into transition opportunities at the other end. One such example was when guard Devin Womack stole the ball from Bates midway through the quarter and found teammate Mike Robinson streaking to the basket for a massive dunk. Robinson tallied 13 points for the River Rats.
The second quarter was mostly back-and-forth, but Huron added a late surge to take a 29-19 halftime lead. Lincoln had cut the lead to six, but Huron’s Dylan Studstill converted two foul shots, stretching the lead back to eight. Then, Lewis stole the inbounds pass and made a layup to pad Huron’s lead.
Huron held Bates to only nine points in the first half, but he found his rhythm and swiftly closed Huron’s lead. Lincoln charged to a 15-4 run that culminated with Bates tying the game with two free throws in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Huron flipped the momentum with a three-point play on the next possession. Robinson cut to the basket on the inbounds pass, and made the layup with a foul, restoring Huron’s lead for good.
Lewis said the team’s maturity allowed it to steady the ship in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been there before, the coach has put us in those circumstances and recently, Friday [Huron’s 52-51 win over Kalamazoo Central], we had the same circumstance and it was a one-point nail bitter,” Lewis said. “We were able to keep our emotions in check and relax and play our game.”
Huron now enters the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a 19-1 record. It is the top seed in a talent-loaded District that includes Saline, Belleville, Pioneer, Ypsilanti, and yes, the defending state champion Ypsilanti Lincoln.
“Our District is tough, so we’re going to have to bring it,” Lewis said. “I’m just excited for the rest of the season.”
Huron opens postseason play on Monday when it takes on Saline in the District opener. Huron beat Saline twice in the regular season, though Saline knocked Huron out of the playoffs in the first round last season.
Samaha said that his team is staying in the present and not focused on anything far down the road.
“The team has had tunnel vision all year. We don’t look past anybody. We know all about Saline and what they did to us first round last year, and they’re more than capable of doing that again. I’m confident we’ll be ready,” Samaha said.