Hillman, Jets set to collide

POWERS — North Central sits at the top of the mountain in Class D boys’ basketball as the defending two-time state champion.

The Jets (25-0) are ranked No. 1 and hope to keep their dream season alive in Tuesday’s 7 p.m. Class D state quarterfinal game against Hillman (24-1) at Sault Ste. Marie High School.

Third-ranked Hillman is no stranger to North Central, which defeated the Tigers 63-51 in the 2015 state quarterfinals.

“They are a quality program with success in recent years,” Jets’ coach Adam Mercier said. “The one hill they are trying to climb is to win a quarterfinal game. They know we stand in their way. They are a guard-oriented team that relies on pressure defenses and zone presses.”

Hillman’s 24-victory total is a school record for wins in a season from a program that has four straight seasons of 20 or more triumphs.

The Tigers’ lone loss came on Feb. 28 when visiting Alcona pulled off a 65-62 upset victory.

Mercier expects to see some of the same tendencies from Hillman as two years ago.

“They are not as long, but they might be quicker,” Mercier said. “It looks like their press causes more problems this year than two years ago when we faced them.”

Hillman’s top player is three-year starter Gunnar Libby, who averages about 20 points per game.

“On film his game looks all-state calibre,” Mercier said. “He’s an excellent shooter who finishes at the rim well and is a good passer. He definitely has to be our first focus.”

Brandon Banks is Hillman’s second-leading scorer with a deadly perimeter shot, Mercier said.

Sophomore 6-foot-3 post player Kory Henigan is a key rebounder and inside presence for the Tigers, who defeated Pellston 72-42 for their regional title.

“They have some guys who come off the bench and give them a lift,” Mercier said. “I think it will be important to know were their outside shooters are.They are strong perimeter team.”

“They have a great program,” Mercier added. “They definitely won’t be intimidated by anything we bring out on the floor.”

North Central will counter with a veteran team led by all-state candidates Jason Whitens and Dawson Bilski.

The Jets played eight games in 17 days, so Mercier gave his team a few days off after beating Rapid River 95-51 Wednesday night for their regional championship.

“I can’t ever recall a stretch like that,” Mercier said. “It was definitely needed, a well deserved (rest). I think we’re rested. They have pep in their step. To go through it unscathed is a credit to the kids’ mental toughness and keeping their bodies in shape. I think our kids are prepared for Tuesday night.”

Mercier also likes the fact North Central will follow the same routine for this week’s quarterfinal as the past two years. The Jets will break up Tuesday with a shoot-around in St. Ignace before heading to the Sault.

“We hope the experience our kids gained the last couple of years will help them get comfortable (Tuesday),” he said.

The North Central-Hillman winner advances to Thursday’s 6 p.m. semifinal game in East Lansing to face the victor of No. 2 Southfield Christian (20-5) against No. 10 Fowler (17-7).