EAST LANSING – Brad Wilson had preached to his Rockford girls basketball team the importance of focusing on the next play. Not worrying about what had just happened, but moving forward and making the next play to help your team.
Apparently, he did a good job of drilling it home.
After hitting the biggest shot in program history and giving the Rams a final-minute lead in the MHSAA Division 1 Final against West Bloomfield, junior guard Grace Lyons’ mind immediately went to heeding her coaches instructions.
“It was amazing, but I knew we had to get back on defense and finish it out,” Lyons said.
Lyons and her Rockford teammates did finish it out, making her go-ahead 3-pointer with 40 seconds remaining the deciding bucket in a 40-36 win over West Bloomfield at the Breslin Center to capture the first Finals title in program history.
“Greatness is about the journey – it’s about the effort that gets put in each and every day,” Wilson said. “In my opinion, these girls were great before we even played this game. They were great before there was a single play in this game. But we had an opportunity to be the greatest in our school history today. Our mantra was, ‘Next play.’ (West Bloomfield) had a couple of runs where some teams would have folded, but our girls didn’t flinch. They steadied the storm, and when girls had opportunities to make plays, they did.”
The win avenged a Semifinal loss from a year ago, when the Lakers ended Rockford’s first trip to the Final Four.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Rockford senior guard Alyssa Wypych said. “I went light-headed. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening.’ It’s something I’ve worked my whole life for. It’s been a dream forever. To finally get it done is just amazing.”
Getting it done took surviving a tight, physical game with the reigning Division 1 champion. Both offenses struggled to get anything going against the other’s stellar defense, and the teams headed into the fourth quarter with West Bloomfield leading 23-22.
Neither team led by more than three points during the fourth quarter until Lyons hit a pair of free throws to ice the game with one-tenth of a second left on the clock.
“They are a really tough team,” Wypych said. “Especially since we had experience playing a majority of their players last year, we knew we were going to have another good game.”
West Bloomfield led 36-35 with under 2 minutes to play, but Lyons came up with a steal with 1:12 remaining to start her game-ending heroics.
Not long after, she found herself open near the top of the 3-point line and didn’t hesitate to let a shot fly, giving Rockford a 38-36 lead with 40 seconds to play. It was her first basket of the day.
“I wasn’t going to stop shooting just because I missed a few,” Lyons said. “I knew I was a good shooter, and at least one of them had to go in. When Anna drove in and just kicked me the ball, there wasn’t anyone around me so I just let it fly and it went in.”
Wilson said it’s a shot that will probably be talked about forever in Rockford.
“It’s a sports town,” he said. “High education, high standards. Our community loves our teams. Anywhere you go, you can’t get away from it. I’d expect the rest of my lifetime – I’m a Rockford Ram forever, raising my family here and I’m a teacher at the school – so I’m assuming we’re going to have conversations about this for the rest of my life. There’s nothing more I’d rather talk about. So, pretty awesome.”
West Bloomfield (26-3) had two chances to tie the game, but turned the ball over on its first, and missed a pair of free throws with 2.8 seconds remaining on its second.
The Rams (28-1) still had to avoid a turnover against West Bloomfield’s incredibly effective press, but they managed, with Lyons inbounding the ball and getting a return pass before being fouled.
While Lyons was the hero down the stretch, Rockford was in the game thanks in large part to the efforts of sophomore Anna Wypych. She finished the game with 20 points and eight rebounds.
“She puts in more time than most people on the planet,” Wilson said. “She’s a gym rat. We do so much as a program, and (when) we’re not doing stuff, she’s doing stuff on her own. When she came here, there were some things she had to learn. Over the course of these last two years, just her evolution in her game, whether it be offense, whether it be defense, whether it’s attacking the basket, knocking down 3s and really just being a big player in big moments, it’s astonishing. I couldn’t be more proud of this one here.”
While West Bloomfield’s pressure defense was giving Rockford trouble, the Rams’ defense was doing the same to the Lakers. West Bloomfield was just 14 of 42 from the field, and star twins Summer and Indya Davis were held to 12 points, with Indya scoring eight.
Junior Kendall Hendrix led West Bloomfield with 12 points and seven rebounds, while senior Sydney Hendrix had 10 points.
“They came here for a reason, and they came here to beat us, because they had nothing to lose and we had everything to lose,” Kendall Hendrix said. “So, next year, we have nothing to lose. I think next year gives us more motivation.”
Another rematch isn’t far-fetched, as both teams bring back the majority of their rosters.
When asked if they expected it, Rockford’s players didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.
“That’s the plan,” Wilson said.
PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Grace Lyons (11) shoots the go-ahead 3-pointer with 40 seconds to play Saturday in the Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Rams’ Anna Wypych (2) drives to the basket with West Bloomfield’s Sydney Hendrix (5) defending. (Below) Kayla MacLaren (14) is presented the championship trophy while her teammates celebrate.