By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — Kierra Fletcher hit the floor with her body, one of the hazards when driving to the basket, then slapped it with her hands when she realized her shot had fallen.
These were just three of the 198 points she scored during Warren Cousino's eight-game run through the MHSAA Class A Girls Basketball Tournament, but they were arguably the most important.
A championship that seemed guaranteed when the Patriots held a 19-point third-quarter lead was slipping through the Patriots' grasp.
Detroit Martin Luther King had all of the momentum and a hot hand in senior guard Micaela Kelly, who virtually single-handedly willed the Crusaders back from the abyss.
A lead that had been chopped to five points was back to double figures at 57-47 when Fletcher made her 3-point play with 5:06 left in the Class A Final on Saturday at the Breslin Center. While King made one final push, coming back from double digits again was too much to ask of the Crusaders, who scored four points in the final seven seconds but ran out of time in a 67-65 loss to Cousino.
Fletcher, who had 27 points and averaged 28.4 over Cousino's last five games, picked up her fourth foul with 44.5 seconds left in the third quarter, then missed two free throws after her return. Her pent-up frustration was released when she made the huge momentum-stalling basket shortly after going 0 for 2 at the line.
"When I got my fourth foul, I was a little rattled," said Fletcher, a junior guard who is already being touted as a Miss Basketball favorite for next season. "Then I came back in the game and missed two free throws when it was crunch time. Once I got that and-one, it lifted my spirits up so we could go and win this game."
By holding off a furious rally by one of the state's most decorated programs, Cousino completed an unlikely championship run. The Patriots had been as far as the Regional Finals only once, losing 50-28 to Mount Clemens L'Anse Creuse North in 1979. They'd won only eight District titles before this season, going 1-8 in Regional games.
Their breakthrough moment came in the Regional championship game, where they beat two-time defending Class A champion Bloomfield Hills Marian, 43-39. Suddenly, Cousino girls basketball was on the radar.
"We figured, hey, if we can beat this team, we can beat any team," said forward Mackenzie Anderson, the team's only senior, after scoring 20 points Saturday. "Our defense was strong. We just didn't want to be done. We wanted one more day together."
Cousino (23-4) joined the 1999 Utica team as the only Class A champions from Macomb County in the 43-year history of the girls basketball tournament.
"Honestly, our team believed this was a realistic goal back in November," Fletcher said. "Our group message name was 'State champs, 2016.' I think at the time, even our parents didn't think we were going to be this far. We were the only ones who believed until we got to where we are today."
To earn their place in history, the Patriots had to knock off a King program that had more MHSAA Finals appearances (12) than Cousino had District titles (nine). King's last championship, its fifth, came in 2006.
It was Cousino that looked like the program accustomed to the big stage, as the Patriots scored the first five points of the game and built a 31-12 lead with 5:05 left in the second quarter. They outrebounded King 16-3 in the first quarter, grabbing 13 of the game's first 14 boards.
"We played our game in the second half," 33rd-year King coach William Winfield said. "In the first half, not so good. We had some shots that did not fall and drives to the basket that did not go; that was about the size of it. They played an excellent game and were able to get the ball down the floor."
Cousino led 35-19 at halftime, with Fletcher scoring a relatively modest (by her standards) 12 points. Freshman Kate McArthur had nine points on three 3-pointers, while Anderson had eight to help the Patriots dominate the first half. In each of Cousino's previous four games, Fletcher scored more than half of the team's points, including 37 in a 60-45 Semifinal victory over Hudsonville on Friday.
"What's great about this victory is for the first half (Fletcher) played a big role, but there were other people who stepped up today, as well," Cousino coach Mike Lee said. "In a championship game, we said we needed people to step up, and they did. The sacrifice, the heart, the will and the belief — this team believed more than any other team. Once we got to a certain point in the Regionals, we felt good about at least giving this a good shot."
When Cousino began the second half by extending its lead back to 19 points three times, it looked like the fourth quarter would simply become a coronation ceremony for the Patriots.
Kelly had other ideas.
The DePaul-bound guard scored 11 points during the third quarter, as King (24-2) cut the lead to 50-40 heading into the fourth. Despite playing with four fouls, she kept it up in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 more points to finish with a game-high 34. Kelly's total tied the sixth-highest for an MHSAA championship game.
"Since I was supposed to be the leader, I just decided this is my time to put my team on my back before I leave," Kelly said. "I wanted to leave knowing I left it all on the floor."
Kelly, who was 11 for 11 from the line, hit two free throws with 5:53 left to put King back in the game at 52-47.
Fletcher held off the charge by making two free throws with 5:15 left, then making the three-point play with 5:06 to go. King got back to within five points with 1:11 left, but Aubrey Fetzer got a layup off a pass from Anderson on the press break with 1:02 to go.
A basket by King's Tia Tedford, who had 14 points, made it 66-61 with 46 seconds left. Anderson went 1 for 2 from the line with 22.6 seconds to go. King got two free throws from Erica Whitley-Jackson with 7 seconds on the clock to get within four. A shot at the buzzer made it a two-point final.
King was able to reverse the early rebounding discrepancy, trailing only 41-32 in that department by the end, but couldn't overcome its 5 for 31 shooting from 3-point range. Cousino attempted only nine shots from beyond the arc, with McArthur going 4 for 8 to finish with 13 points.
"Today we rushed our threes," Kelly said. "We didn't take our time."
The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Warren Cousino bench erupts as the final seconds tick off the clock during the Class A Final on Saturday. (Middle) Mackenzie Cook works to get through the Martin Luther King defense on a drive to the hoop.
TECUMSEH – First, the good news: Nearly everyone on the Tecumseh girls basketball team has aspirations to play college basketball – and several of them at a very high level.
Now, the twist: There are only eight girls in the entire program.
Tecumseh head coach Kristy Zajac, starting her seventh season, is unfazed by the lack of numbers. Tecumseh will field just a varsity team this season but should contend for a Southeastern Conference White championship and pursue a deep playoff run as well.
“This is a great group of girls,” Zajac said. “At least six or seven of them want to play college basketball. The basketball IQ is so much higher than we have had in the past. We’ve never had a full team of basketball-first kids.”
Zajac said that dynamic has changed practices and the approach on the court.
“We do a lot more high-level skill stuff and high-level thinking,” she said. “We do more read-and-react stuff where they have to play on the fly, which makes us harder to scout. We want to try and give the kids a chance to use that basketball IQ and make opportunities for themselves on the floor so they can score without having to run a set play.”
The list of college prospects starts with her daughter, 6-foot-2 junior Alli Zajac. She holds about 15 Division I offers, and the list seems to grow daily.
She’s been receiving recruiting attention since before she played a game in high school. As a freshman, she was the Lenawee County Player of the Year and has been all-state both of her first two seasons. Last winter, she scored 433 points as Tecumseh went 20-5.
Her sister, Addi Zajac, hasn’t played a varsity game yet but has received a lot of attention as well as a college prospect after several great years of travel ball. She’s 6-foot and a true center.
“She wears a size 14 shoe,” Zajac said. “We are hoping next year she is 6-3 or 6-4. She has such a strong body; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone that strong at her age. She can push people around.”
The sisters are very different types of players. They also are extremely competitive, as witnessed when they play 1-on-1 at home.
“It usually ends in a fistfight,” Zajac said. “They are both very competitive.”
The team is loaded with more talent than just the Zajac sisters.
Sophomore Makayla Schlorf made 28 3-pointers last season, and sophomore Chloe Bollinger made 26. Junior Ashlyn Moorhead averaged just under double figures in scoring and averaged 3.7 assists a game last year. Junior Lauren Kilbarger also is back from last season and joined by newcomers Faith Wiedyk, a junior, sophomore Sophia Torres and freshman Amaria Brown.
Maddie VanBlack is another travel ball veteran but is out this season due to tearing an ACL.
Tecumseh athletic director Jon Zajac – Kristy’s husband – said it is disappointing Tecumseh won’t field a junior varsity team this year. He said kids playing travel ball in other sports, along with the youth of the current team, are factors.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “Hopefully this is the only year for that.”
Kristy (Maska) Zajac grew up near Tecumseh in Britton, played four years on the varsity and scored more than 1,800 career points under coach Bart Bartels, now an assistant on her staff. She played at Eastern Michigan University, where she was one of the top scorers in school history. Jon Zajac, played at EMU and professionally overseas.
The entire family is crazy about basketball. In addition to Alli and Addi, son Ryder played four years at Tecumseh before heading off to college to play football, and the youngest in the family, Avery, is a budding star in her own right.
“There were a few travel games this year where my team was short on numbers and Avery got to play with Addi and Alli,” Kristy Zajac said. “That was cool to see. She held her own. She won’t get to play with Alli in high school (Avery is in seventh grade), but she’ll get two years with Addi. I got to play with my sister, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
Jon Zajac stops by practice now and then to coach as well. He and Kristy coach Avery’s travel team.
“He is a great person to have as part of the program,” Kristy Zajac said of her husband. “Anytime I can get him to help with the post players and with the girls is great. He’s a huge help.”
The family often schedules trips around basketball and is seemingly always pulled in multiple directions as the three girls compete at various levels.
“It’s pretty much basketball all day, every day,” Zajac said. “It’s fun to see how the kids enjoy it and love the game.”
Tecumseh, which has won a combined 39 games over the past two seasons, has loaded up its schedule, playing a collection of nonconference teams that made deep tournament runs and won conference championships last season. Tecumseh plays in the Icebreaker event at Ypsilanti Arbor Prep against Detroit Country Day on Saturday and also faces Temperance-Bedford (23-1 last season), reigning Division 3 runner-up Blissfield and Grand Blanc.
Without a senior on the team and no JV squad, Tecumseh will play essentially this group for the next 50 or more games. It’s a two-year window with virtually the same team.
“We’re doing what we can to win this year,” Zajac said. “We want this year to be super successful. We are just taking it one game at a time and going from there. We want to keep building and getting better every day, every game. Hopefully by the end of next year, we’ll be where we need to be.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Tecumseh’s Alli Zajac makes her move toward the lane last season against Adrian. (Middle) Kristy Zajac coaches her team, which finished 20-5 in 2022-23. (Photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne/Adrian Daily Telegram.)