By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Averi Gamble had a smile on her face for all but a few seconds of the final minute of Thursday night’s MHSAA Semifinal.
And she and her teammates earned the opportunity to go through it all again.
Sacred Heart chipped away over three quarters to finish a 45-38 win over Stephenson and set up championship game matchup against top-ranked Pittsford.
“Just the fact that I can come back here twice is overwhelming,” Gamble added. “I know how it feels already. It’s just so exciting that I can do it twice.”
The No. 3 Irish (24-1) will face Pittsford at 10 a.m. Saturday. Stephenson, ranked No. 8 entering the postseason, was playing in its first Semifinal and finished 24-3.
But for more than a half, it looked instead like the Eagles’ dream season might go on.
Stephenson took a five-point lead into the final seconds of the first quarter, and led as late as two minutes into the third.
But that’s when Sacred Heart’s experience began to pay off.
The Irish actually are relatively young, with a freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup. But Gamble was The Associated Press’ Class D Player of the Year this winter and senior guard Megan English also started in the 2014 Final.
Gamble finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots, but had 11 points, five rebounds and two of those blocks over the final 14 minutes and nine of her team’s 12 points during the fourth quarter.
Stephenson, which had shot 33 percent from the floor during the first half, sagged to 23 percent during the second half against the Oilers’ zone, which was anchored by Gamble dissuading would-be drivers from taking a run at the basket.
English added two points, two steals and an assist over the final 14 minutes.
“We just settled in,” Sacred Heart coach Damon Brown said. “We just had to get through that first quarter, get our nerves out of the way, just think of it as a regular basketball game. Once we did that, settled in, our defense looked a lot better and our offense looked a lot better.”
The Irish did switch things up defensively a bit during the second half in an effort to apply more pressure and up the pace of the game. Stephenson coach Shanna Beal admitted that uptick in tempo might have drained her team’s energy a bit too quickly – although the inability to get many open looks and stop Gamble down the stretch certainly made differences as well.
“Obviously she’s the focus and what they base their offense around, and we just decided to play in front and behind her,” Beal said. “The problem that arose was getting body position, and rebounding was a big key in the second half. We just couldn’t move her out of there to get second shots.”
Sophomore forward Sophie Ruggles added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Irish, and freshman guard Scout Nelson also scored 10 points.
Senior Karley Johnson was the lead scorer for Stephenson with 12 points, and senior center Tori Wangerin had six and 13 rebounds while locking up Gamble for more than a half defensively.
“I have no words; I’m super proud of the girls this year,” Beal said. “These three girls (Wangerin, Johnson and Kelsey Johnson) have grown up in the gym. This was a dream of theirs, and I’m glad we were able to make it here. I believe we fought hard all the way to the end. We have a lot of pride being the first women’s team from our school to make it here. Most of our community was here; we’re pretty small, but that they were all here was great support.”
The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sacred Heart players celebrate clinching their second MHSAA championship game appearance in three seasons. (Middle) Scout Nelson works to get past Stephenson’s Haley Truitt.
Championship time is quickly approaching this girls basketball season.
We’re still three weeks out from the start of District play. But league contenders are clashing all over the state, with a handful of conferences finishing up their schedules this week and several favorites facing off soon with titles on the line. We make mention of a number of those below.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. West Bloomfield 59, Detroit Edison 49 Last season, West Bloomfield (15-2) became the first in-state team to defeat Edison (12-3) since 2018 – and the Lakers have become the only one to do so again this winter.
2. Maple City Glen Lake 51, Traverse City St. Francis 45 The Lakers (13-2) are up to No. 2 in Division 4 MPR, while St. Francis (12-2) sits No. 4 in Division 3.
3. Holt 55, DeWitt 53 The Rams (14-2) sit alone atop the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue after sending the Panthers (13-2) into second in a matchup of top Division 1 teams statewide.
4. Hancock 50, Calumet 47 The Bulldogs (13-1) maintained their one-game lead in the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference West with their second win this season over third-place Calumet (11-3). Both are among the top seven statewide in Division 3 MPR.
5. Detroit Edison 44, Farmington Hills Mercy 42 The Pioneers bounced back from the West Bloomfield loss with a pair of close wins, this one over Mercy (14-2) followed by a one-pointer over Grand Rapids Catholic Central on Saturday.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (11-5) After a 2-4 start with those losses to top Division 1 and 2 teams statewide, Reeths-Puffer is 9-3 and tied for first in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green with Muskegon after edging the Big Reds 56-52 on Friday. That avenged a 14-point loss to Muskegon on Jan. 6, and the Rockets have since gone on an eight-game winning streak. They also opened last week with a 42-39 victory over 11-win Ludington.
Wayne Memorial (13-4) The Zebras further solidified their standing atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East standings with last week’s 75-57 win over second-place Belleville. That followed up a 44-41 win over the Tigers on Jan. 6, and total Wayne has won 12 straight since a 1-3 start that included two-point losses to Division 1 contenders Detroit Renaissance and Hudsonville and a third defeat to Illinois power Chicago Whitney Young.
Goodrich (14-1) The Martians are locked in another battle atop the Flint Metro League Stars with Lake Fenton and trail the Blue Devils by a game after a 50-44 loss Jan. 20. That’s Goodrich’s only defeat, and they’ll attempt to avenge it in the league finale Feb. 17. In the meantime, the Martians can continue their statewide push upward with 13-win Flushing coming up Wednesday and 15-win Ovid-Elsie next week as well.
Redford Westfield Prep (11-6) The Warriors take on many of the state’s best, evidenced by their No. 8 MPR despite six losses. Westfield has won seven of its last eight games, the lone defeat during that streak 55-53 to still-undefeated Flint Carman-Ainsworth on Jan. 16 – and with perhaps its most notable instate win of the season 46-45 in double overtime Jan. 12 over reigning Division 3 champion Ypsilanti Arbor Prep.
McBain (13-4) The Highland Conference race could go down to the finish, especially after McBain avenged its earlier 17-point loss to second-place Evart with a 51-35 win last week. McBain also has a six-point loss to league leader Lake City from Jan. 20, but can avenge that in the regular-season finale Feb. 23. The Ramblers additionally have a pair of victories over 12-win Beal City and a solid early loss to still-undefeated Division 2 Escanaba.
Ovid-Elsie (15-2) The Marauders haven’t slowed down a bit after last season’s 21-2 finish with league and District titles, the latter in Division 2. This season in Division 3, Ovid-Elsie is up to No. 6 in MPR with a 14-game winning streak since suffering its lone losses early to Pewamo-Westphalia (10-5) and Dansville (15-1). The Marauders handed Mackinaw City its first defeat Saturday, 59-55 on a neutral court, and also has a victory over 14-win Ithaca plus a two-game lead in the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference.
Fowler (11-6) Coming off back-to-back Division 4 championships, Fowler put together a schedule featuring solid-to-strong teams from Divisions 1-4 and sit No. 3 in Division 4 MPR. The losses have come to Midland Dow, Haslett, Lansing Catholic, Kent City and league rivals Dansville and Portland St. Patrick, and the Eagles avenged the Shamrocks defeat 51-44 last week. Fowler will need help to catch Dansville in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference, down two games from the league leader, but will try to get one back from the Aggies on Feb. 14.
Norway (16-1) The Knights are leading the large-school division of the Skyline Central Conference with the likely deciding matchup coming at Bark River-Harris next week. Norway has lost only to Niagara (Wis.), by five two weeks ago, and handed Carney-Nadeau (13-2) one of its losses among other strong work – and after ending last season’s 11-10 run with a 15-point District loss to the Wolves.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Coldwater (15-1) at Jackson Northwest (15-1) – The Mounties lead Coldwater by a win in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference thanks to a 50-46 win in their first meeting Jan. 10.
Tuesday – Utica Ford (14-1) at Grosse Pointe North (13-2) – North has clinched a share of the Macomb Area Conference Red title heading into tonight’s league finale, while Ford won by a large margin in the MAC White.
Thursday – Houghton (13-1) at Hancock (13-1) – As noted above, Hancock leads the West-PAC West by a game – but will face second-place Houghton twice over the next two weeks.
Friday – Standish-Sterling (15-1) at Hemlock (13-3) – Hemlock owns the lead in the Tri-Valley Conference West 10-1 thanks to a 62-31 doubling up in the first meeting Jan. 6. But that remains the Panthers’ lone loss, and they’ve since handed TVC 10-2 co-leader Saginaw Valley Lutheran one of its two defeats.
Friday – Saline (15-2) at Temperance Bedford (16-1) – Saline is first and Bedford second in the Southeastern Conference Red thanks to Saline’s 41-22 win in their first meeting Jan. 27.
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PHOTOS (Top) A trio of Fowler defenders surround a Bath player driving to the basket during a 49-27 win earlier this season; they meet again Thursday. (Middle) Maddie Bradford of Maple City Glen Lake contests a shot by Maggie Napont of Traverse City St. Francis during the Lakers' 51-45 win over the Gladiators last week. (Top photo by Click by Christine McCallister. Middle photo by Rick Sack/TC Rick Photo.)