RECAP: Pilots Hang On for Regional Championship vs. U of D.

Host the regional round of the MHSAA state basketball playoffs for the first time in De La Salle history? Check.

Win a regional championship in the same season? Check. 

Yes, both the former and latter are true, after the Pilots' 64-59 victory over Catholic League Central division rival U-D Jesuit Thursday in the Division 1 Regional 7 championship game.

With the win, the Purple and Gold avenged a 66-64 double-overtime loss to the Cubs from March 11. 

First-year DLS head coach Gjon Djokaj was elated for his team after the game. 

"I'm just so happy for the boys. It's always about these kids. It just means so much to all of us because we put in so much time and so much effort," Djokaj said. "We sacrificed so much, time away from our families, time away from our friends, just quarantining ourselves as much as possible. And these kids haven't waned from that, even during stoppages. They've been like, 'Hey, we're going to practice tomorrow. That's what we want to do.' And, I just love every single one of them." 

The Pilots didn't trail for a single second in their regional title game clash with U-D.  

In fact, DLS led by as many as 15 points, 36-21, in the first half, and went into the locker room at halftime with a 36-23 advantage.

The Pilots then came out hot to start the second half, and expanded their lead to 20, 46-26. 

The Cubs were far from done, though. They went on a 20-4 run to end the third quarter, cutting the Purple and Gold's lead to just four, 50-46.

DLS responded by going on a 9-0 run to open up the fourth quarter. At the time, it looked like Djokaj's squad had just put the finishing touches on a lopsided victory.

That, however, couldn't have been further from the truth. 

Djokaj & Co. scored just five points the rest of the way, while Pat Donnelly's team kept its foot on the gas pedal and scored 13 points in the final 4:57 of the game. 

The Cubs inched to as close as three points, 62-59, with under 1:00 to play. 

This is when DLS senior guard Linden Holder, in a season full of big moments, produced his biggest moment yet. He sank a pair of free throws, with 7.2 seconds left, to seal the win at the Bill Fox Gymnasium. 

Holder wouldn't have wanted to win the regional championship anywhere else.

"Oh, man, winning here was amazing," Holder commented after the game. "In my sophomore year, I broke my ankle, and couldn't even play. Then, last season was cut short because of COVID. So, this feels amazing. In my senior year, to do this with my brothers, whom I love, it's amazing -- and especially with us being able to win on our home court." 

Holder finished with 11 points in the contest, while sophomore guard Nino Smith, the hero from the Pilots' buzzer-beating regional semifinal win against Detroit King Tuesday, led all DLS scorers with 15 points.

Also, sophomore Triston Nichols and junior Caleb Reese each contributed 14 points. 

Up next for the Pilots is a quarterfinal round contest with Macomb Dakota at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Detroit Renaissance High School.