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Anchor's away! Tars move on in regional play

Photo By: David Dalton
Photo By: David Dalton

Story By: Jim Evans, Macomb Daily


March Madness.

It's not a definable psychiatric condition.

But what went on at Anchor Bay High School Tuesday evening certainly exhibited many of the symptoms of that particular kind of malady.

An extremely loud and boisterous student cheering section from the home school. A packed gymnasium. A game that stayed inhale-exhale close throughout.

The host Tars and Chippewa Valley met in a Division 1 regional semifinal game Tuesday. When it was all decided, Anchor Bay prevailed 44-41 and will advance to the regional championship game on Thursday. The Tars will play Roseville, which defeated Troy 83-42 in the second game Tuesday night.

Anchor Bay's Chris Belt put the game officially out of reach when he knocked down a pair of free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining to put his team ahead 44-39.

Chippewa Valley's finals points came at the line when Joel Knighton drained a pair of free throws with .3 seconds left.

Knighton led all scorers with 18 points. Myren Harris scored 11.

The winners were led by Jaylon Smelser, a senior guard, and Blake Busuttil, a junior guard, who both scored 11. Ethan Swarts, a senior forward, finished with 10.

"We've been playing well enough to win, that is for sure. Most people who know me know that I am not super smart and I don't coach very well," said Jim Barnes, the Anchor Bay coach. "I try to do what other good coaches do. Here's what a good coach would do. He would start talking about March in November, he would start talking about the post season and he'd build toward it."

Don't be fooled. Barnes is plenty smart; he's definitely smart enough to get his players to believe they have every right to continue on in the tournament. Anchor Bay finished the regular season with a 5-5 record in the MAC Blue Division, putting the Tars in a three-way tie for third place.

But they knocked off L'Anse Creuse North and Port Huron in the districts, before beating Dakota from the MAC Red Division 54-49 in the district championship game.

It is the first time that Anchor Bay has been in the regional round since 1990. They had not won a regional game since 1955 when they beat Capac in a Class C regional semifinal.

And they accomplished Tuesday's night's historic feat without the services of a healthy Riley Vermander, their star player. Vermander got caught up with a Chippewa Valley player underneath and suffered a bruised knee. That collision took place midway through the first quarter.

He sat for nearly a quarter until he returned to the court.

"He's an incredible player and a better kid and a better teammate," said his coach. "Clearly, he's had a great season and he has had great numbers. But, you know, how good were the other guys when they were able to grind it out for that seven-minute stretch when Riley wasn't in the game?

"We held Chippewa Valley to two points in the second quarter," continued Barnes. "It was an emotional lift to see Vermander come back. Chris Belt and Blake Busuttil, two kids who are juniors who played on a six-win jayvee team last year, were on the floor at the end of the game tonight. Blake Busuttil made two threes to swing the game back our way. Belt played great defense and made some big free throws for us. Those guys were huge. Jaylen Smelser played 31 ½ minutes for us tonight. There were a lot of guys who contributed."

One of those was Vermander, who scored five points despite being hobbled.

"I tried to do a move underneath, and the Chippewa Valley player came up under me and his knee caught mine and I kind of went limp," said Vermander. "No way am I 100 percent, but when I got back in the game and kept running it loosened a little bit. I didn't do very much. I made plays and let my teammates score. I knew I was not going to impact the game very much, but it was very important for me to be out there."