‘The general’ Jalen Griffith helps Simeon survive Benet’s late charge and win the Pontiac title

When Simeon’s lead was crumbling away in the championship game of the 91st Pontiac Holiday Tournament, it was Griffith that righted the ship and secured the 52-49 win against Benet.

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Simeon’s Michael Ratliff (3) celebrates after the Woverines defeat Benet to win the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

Simeon’s Michael Ratliff (3) celebrates after the Woverines defeat Benet to win the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

PONTIAC–Stoic is not the first word that comes to mind for most star high school basketball players, but it begins to describe Simeon senior Jalen Griffith. 

He’s nearly always the smallest player on the court, but as senior Sam Lewis says, Griffith is the general. He’s a four-year varsity player and has been the Wolverines’ rock for the past two seasons. 

When Simeon’s lead was crumbling away in the championship game of the 91st Pontiac Holiday Tournament, it was Griffith that righted the ship and secured the 52-49 win against Benet. 

“No matter our ranking we wanted to prove we are the best,” Griffith said. “And this was [Simeon coach Robert Smith’s] last time coming to Pontiac so we wanted to win it for him.”

A bucket from Brady Kunka pulled Benet within two points of Simeon (12-0) with 1:30 left. The Wolverines led by 20 in the first half and 18 midway through the third quarter. 

Griffith scored on a drive to the basket to extend the lead to four. Then he threaded the needle on an immaculate pass to Sam Lewis, who dunked it to put Simeon ahead 50-44. 

“[Griffith] is our team,” Smith said. “I can just hand him the ball and say let’s go. The colleges are going to come for him. He’s showing people he can play at that level.”

Benet (16-1) cut the lead to 50-49 on a steal and basket by Sam Driscoll but Lewis provided the final margin, nailing two free throws with 11 seconds to play. Benet had a chance to tie at the end but missed a three-pointer. 

Simeon coach Robert Smith acknowledges the crowd after the Wolverines defeat Benet to win the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

Simeon coach Robert Smith acknowledges the crowd after the Wolverines defeat Benet to win the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

“We were dead in the water at halftime,” Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. “Our guys just kept plugging along and never quit. Simeon is the best team in the state for a reason. We are disappointed we came up short, we wish we played better in the first half.”

Griffith led Simeon with 17 points and six rebounds. He won the prestigious A.C. Williamson award. Lewis finished with 15 points and Michael Ratliff added 11 points. 

It’s the 16th title for Simeon, which also won last season. Benet also lost to the Wolverines in the 2014 championship game. 

Dartmouth recruit Niko Abusara led the Redwings with 17 points, five assists and six rebounds. Brayden Fagbemi added 13 points and four assists. 

“We are still far away from where we want to be but in December you just want to win games,” Simeon coach Robert Smith said. “We can fix some things later.”

Smith, who is retiring after the season, was overcome with emotion after the game. Simeon has forged a close relationship with the tournament and the Pontiac community. 

“This place is so special to me,” Smith said. “When I first started coming down with [former Simeon coach Bob Hambric] he told me that loyalty is a big thing. Pontiac has been loyal to me so we are loyal to them. It was emotional for me and for my son. He’s been coming here his whole life and understands it is coming to an end.”

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