STERLING HEIGHTS — When you win so often, losing can sometimes seem like an affront.
But it’s almost always invaluable as a motivator and teaching point.
Roseville beat New Haven all the way back in December, but that was the motivation the Rockets used as fuel to drive them through the regular season, and into the Macomb Area Conference Red/White tournament, knowing they’d probably meet the Panthers in the finals.
That’s where they were Saturday evening, in front of a packed house at Sterling Heights Stevenson, earning a bit of payback with a 64-55 win to claim their first-ever Red/White tournament title.
“They beat us second game of the season, and stormed our court, so I felt disrespected. It was on the second game of the season, and we were still getting better, so I felt like we had to come out here tonight, and show them who we were,” New Haven’s Mr. Basketball candidate Romeo Weems said. “We didn’t play around. I took this game serious, because this was the only team to beat us, at home, second team to beat me at home my whole career in high school, so I took this game personal, serious, and wanted to come out and win, and we did.”
That 65-60 home loss on Dec. 4 snapped a 39-game regular-season win streak for the Rockets, dating back to a loss to Macomb Dakota on Dec. 16, 2016. The Rockets went on to win the Class B title that season, running the table the rest of the way.
“We learned so much from that loss, it prepared us for now. A loss in December prepares us for March,” New Haven coach Tedaro France II said. “We grew so much since then. A loss can teach you so much. Because we’ve won so much the last five years … the kids, sometimes, you can’t teach things until they see themselves fail first. You gotta fail first, and we failed, big-time, and we heard their talk. We could’t wait to get back here. We knew we had to take it game-by-game, but we knew that we would meet them here, and we’d be prepared for it.”
The Rockets have won five straight division titles, but the previous four were either in the MAC Gold (2015 and 2016) or in the MAC Blue (2017 and 2018). This year was the first time they’d been in one of the top two divisions — winning the MAC White — to gain entry into the top tier tournament.
As the White Division champ, New Haven (18-1) had to win road games at Clinton Twp. Chippewa Valley at Sterling Heights Stevenson to get to the Red/White title game.
The crowd was a bit more robust on Saturday, though, with tournament officials stopping ticket sales once the gym’s capacity was reached, and with standing-room only around the bottom level of the gym.
“For us, as much as we wanted to win, getting her tonight was huge, because we have to learn how to prepare for an opponent in a playoff scenario, and then we got to come here and play on Saturday, where there wasn’t anywhere to sit in the whole gym, it felt like. Our kids were down in the huddle, during the game, and you’d say, ‘Hey, just everyone look around and smile.’ And it’s like ‘Woah,’” Roseville coach Hassan Nizam said. “Credit to the MAC: You can’t beat this as far as getting ready for the playoffs.”
Weems loved the atmosphere, too.
“I love the stands being packed, the crowd saying ‘overrated,’ booing and all that stuff,” the senior said. “I love that.”
With Weems, who finished with 19 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals, and Ronald Jeffery III, who had 26 points, 10 rebounds and six steals, the Rockets certainly weren’t overrated.
They led Roseville (15-3) by a 13-12 margin after one quarter, 29-26 at the half, and 42-36 headed to the fourth. That’s when the Rockets started to get a bit of separation, using a couple of defensive plays from senior Darrius Brooks — two forced turnovers, one of which he turned into free throws — to help build the lead back up, using an 8-3 run to lead 50-39 with 4:35 to go.
“Brooks made two big plays late. Two great hustle plays. That kid, man, he's a special kid, but we’re so deep at guard, this is probably my most deep team I've had here in years. To bring in a player like that and give us a great spark, it's good to have,” France said. “We take pride in playing great team defense. That’s what we do. We know if we want to win games, the kids know that if they want to play, they have to defend.”
John Ukomadu had a bucket, then Martell Turner hit a pull-up jumper off a steal to cut it back to seven, 50-43, with 3:40 left. A Weems dunk with 2:21 left pushed the lead back up to 12, at 55-43, but the Panthers weren’t done.
Roseville got the deficit back to seven, 58-51, with 40 seconds left, but was forced to foul to stop the clock, and New Haven closed out the win at the line.
“I will say this: That’s 100 percent credit to our guys. I tell them all the time … ‘For four or five straight years, everybody in the county has rolled over for them. Every time you look at a box score, it’s New Haven by 30, New Haven by 40, when it’s a MAC game.’ So for us to, the year they’ve got Romeo, and the year they’ve their team, to beat them one time, and as bad as it feels to lose tonight … our kids fought to the buzzer,” Nizam said. “You can’t ask for more than that. They kept fighting, they kept fighting. We’ll sit on this one, and it’ll put us in better position to make a run in (Division 1), for sure.”
Darien Banks led Roseville with 22 points, and Turner and Lazell Judge both had nine, but nobody else had more than six, as the New Haven pressure took the Panthers out of their offensive flow for much of the night.
“I think they amped up the pressure a little bit on us, more today than they did the first time, but we kind of expected it, because it’s what they’ve been doing. I thought we did … not a good job against their pressure. It just kind of took us out our flow.
If we could take it back, I think that’s the one thing we’d want to do better job of, just handling that full-court pressure with Romeo on the ball,” Nizam said. “You’re playing, you’re playing, you’re playing, and you get a one-point lead, or you’re down to one, and then two, three turnovers in a row, they get it to seven or eight, and they’re a tough team, so you don’t want to put yourself in a hole against them, and we did that to ourselves a few times tonight.”