By Tom Kendra
Special to Second Half
EAST LANSING – With all of the hoopla and postgame celebrating after Bloomfield Hills Marian's emotional MHSAA Class A Semifinal victory over rival Farmington Hills Mercy on Friday afternoon, it's no wonder veteran coach Mary Cicerone was worried about a letdown.
Especially when the next opponent was experienced Canton, arguably the state's most suffocating defensive team.
"We were in celebration mode after beating Mercy," Cicerone conceded, "and I was worried they weren't going to come out here aggressive (Saturday)."
Leave it to a freshman to calm the nerves of her 31st-year head coach.
Samantha Thomas, a 6-foot freshman, scored a game-high 15 points, including nine in the critical third quarter, to lead Marian to a 44-26 victory over Canton in Saturday's MHSAA Class A championship game at the Breslin Center.
"In the first half, we were being selfish a little bit," said Thomas, whose sophomore sister Bailey Thomas scored eight points and finished with a game-high four steals. "We started to spread them out in the third quarter. We drove a few times and missed, and I was there to get the rebound and put it back in."
The Mustangs (25-2) won the 560th game and fifth MHSAA championship under Cicerone, but her first since 1998. Marian won four Class A titles between 1988 and 1998.
Not many figured this would be the team to end that title drought, with a roster that featured just one senior in 6-1 forward Laura Bruton.
Canton did a good job on Bruton, limiting her to three points and two rebounds in her final prep game, but it was the athletic ability of the Mustangs' underclassmen that sparked them in Saturday's second half.
Samantha Thomas, who has yet another family member involved with the program as her father, Derek Thomas, is a Marian varsity assistant coach, scored nine points in the third quarter on three three-point plays as the Mustangs turned a slim 22-16 halftime lead into a comfortable 35-21 leading entering the fourth quarter.
Canton, which is known for its defense and is not a come-from-behind, explosive kind of team, was never able to mount a rally during the final 8 minutes.
"The first 4 minutes of the third quarter were big," said ninth-year Canton coach Brian Samulski, who started three seniors. "Marian is so aggressive, they just pushed us away from the basket and we couldn't execute our offense."
The Chiefs, who finished their best-ever girls basketball season at 22-5 and with their first championship game appearance, had their best success in the second quarter. Senior guard Rachel Winters scored all six of her points in that quarter as she repeatedly got behind Marian's aggressive defense on give-and-go plays.
But those opportunities weren't there after halftime.
"We felt fine at halftime, because we were only down by six points," Winters said. "But Marian's pressure got to us. They kept changing their defense, and it was hard to adjust."
Paige Aresco, a 5-10 senior forward, led Canton with nine points and six rebounds, while 6-1 senior Taylor Hunley added four points and five rebounds.
"I'm proud of this team," Aresco said. "I don't think anyone expected us to be here. It was a great team to be a part of."
Canton was truly the Cinderella team of this year's Class A tournament, entering the dance unranked and barely even garnering honorable mention status in the final Associated Press poll, with just one vote.
Marian entered the postseason ranked No. 5 and will certainly be a threat to repeat next season, with 14 of the 15 players on Saturday's roster returning.
In addition to the Thomas sisters, the Mustangs also should return sharpshooting junior Kara Holinski, who scored nine points on Saturday after going off for 20 in Friday's convincing 67-55 victory over Farmington Mercy.
Another strong-shooting junior who will be back is Jaeda Robinson, who scored five points on Saturday.
"It was definitely a goal to win the state title," explained Robinson. "We were on a mission, and we finished it. We pride ourselves on defense, and today that was what got our offense rolling."
While much of the focus coming into Saturday's finale was Canton's lane-clogging, man-to-man defense, Marian held its seven postseason opponents to an average of 30 points, highlighted by a 43-17 win over Port Huron Northern in the Quarterfinal.
It was truly a full-circle season for the Mustangs, who began on opening night with a 49-38 win over Canton and then ended it Saturday with an 18-point victory. The only two losses came at the hands of Mercy, including a buzzer-beating, heartbreaking loss in the Detroit Catholic League championship game – a defeat Cicerone said burned inside the team and, ultimately, fueled its postseason run.
Cicerone, who publicly wondered in recent years whether she would still be coaching when Marian won its next MHSAA title, said this year's team may have been young, but they were a true team that supported each other and never complained.
"It's easy to come back and coach these kinds of kids," Cicerone said. "I'm the negative one that's nagging them all the time. They pick each other up. They work hard, they don't complain and it's fun."
PHOTOS: (Top) Bloomfield Hills Marian player rush the floor to celebrate their Class A championship. (Middle) Marian's Bailey Thomas works to stay in front of Canton's Rachel Winters.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Paige Aresco of Canton grabs the Marian miss, gets the Chiefs in transition and takes the pass to basket to pull her team closer in the second quarter of the Class A finale. Marian scores after a miss. (2) Samantha Thomas takes a pass from Brittany Gray and scores in the third quarter of the Class A title game against Canton.
Hemlock and Rockford's drives to their first Girls Basketball Finals championships in March were paced in part by some of the strongest 3-point shooting in MHSAA history.
The Division 1 title-winning Rams connected on 243 3-pointers – third-most all-time – over 29 games in tying the single-season wins record while finishing 28-1. Grace Lyons, a senior this fall, made the single-season individual list with 70 3-pointers.
The Huskies won in Division 3 having connected on 229 3-pointers over 29 games, seventh-most in MHSAA history, on 678 attempts, which ranks 12th on that list. Chloe Watson made the single-season list with 75 3-pointers, and Regan Finkbeiner did as well connecting on 67.
Watson also made the career 3-pointers list with 224 and Finkbeiner with 194, and 2017 Hemlock graduate Samantha Krauss was added for 65 3-pointers as a junior in 2015-16 and 188 for her career. Additionally, past Hemlock standout Karli Herrington was added for her 317 rebounds in 2012-13, and Peyton Apsey was added for 144 steals in 2010-11.
Watson is continuing her career at Mid-Michigan College, and Finkbeiner is playing softball at Madonna. Herrington went on to play at Central Michigan and Northwood, Krauss played at Ferris State and Apsey played at Oakland.
Read on for more recent record book additions for girls basketball:
Hudsonville’s Maddie Petroelje joined the list of top 3-point shooters in MHSAA history as a junior in 2021-22, when she connected on 70 (in just 147 attempts) to make the single-season list. She graduated this spring 16th on the career list as well with 226 3-pointers in 512 attempts over 92 games and four seasons. She is continuing at Loyola (Ill.).
Byron Center’s Avery Zeinstra also finished her career among those top 3-point shooters. She also made the single-season list with 70 in 147 attempts as a freshman in 2018-19, and she capped her career in 2021-22 with 206 3-pointers (tied for 20th-most) in 502 attempts over four seasons and 80 career games. She is continuing at Grand Valley State.
Hannah Thompson was best known for her soccer scoring at Schoolcraft. But she’s made a second MHSAA record book for her 15 steals in a Jan. 28, 2022, basketball win over Galesburg-Augusta. She’s continuing her soccer career at Eastern Michigan.
Baraga’s run to the Division 4 Semifinals in 2022 received big boosts from Corina Jahfetson’s 3-point shooting and Reide Osterman’s defense. Jahfetson was added to the record book with 66 3-pointers over 25 games, including nine in a game against Carney Nadeau – when Baraga as a team made the record book with 14 3-pointers total. Osterman made the record book with 153 steals. Jahfetson graduated this spring, and Osterman is playing at Northern Michigan.
Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy’s Audrey Mileski had one of the busiest games at the free throw line in MHSAA history Dec. 14, 2021. She made 23 free throws – third-most in a single game – against Wyoming Kelloggsville. Mileski graduated this spring.
Sophia Bussell had set Monroe’s single-game 3-pointers record of eight as a freshman two seasons ago, and she bettered it last Dec. 13 by tying for the 10th-most in MHSAA history. She made 10-pointers including the game-winner of a 58-56 victory over Ypsilanti Lincoln. A little less than 10 months earlier, Adrian Lenawee Christian then-senior Kylie Summer also made 10, on 17 attempts, during a 57-34 win over Lansing Christian on Feb. 24, 2022.
Lydia Meredith enjoyed a memorable senior season for Portland St. Patrick in 2021-22, finishing her four-year varsity career with 453 steals over just 80 games. She also was added for drilling 17 free throws in 22 attempts against Fowler. She plays now at Saginaw Valley State.
Gabby Piepho got off to a fast start at Howell as a freshman last season, and at a record-setting pace at the free-throw line. She made 93 of 107 attempts over 25 games, for an .869 percentage that made the single-season list. That included a string of 47 straight free throws that ranks as the second-longest in MHSAA history. As a team, Howell tied for sixth all-time with 301 free throws over 25 games, on 439 attempts.
Kent City’s Lexie Bowers reached the single-season 3-pointers list for the second time last season, connecting on 72 of 233 tries over 26 games (after making 77 as a junior), and finished her four-season varsity career 16th on that 3-pointers list with 225 in 693 attempts over 99 games. She’s continuing her career at Northwood. Kent City as a team also reached the single-season 3-pointers made and attempted lists again, ranking fourth with 753 attempts and tying for eighth all-time by connecting on 202.
Posen then-junior Faith Cousins earned a par of record book entries during 2021-22 for assists. Her 16 in a District Final win on March 4, 2022, remain tied for fifth-most in one game, and she finished with 165 over 22 games for the season. She’s set to begin her softball career at Alma College.
Niles Brandywine went over 20 wins again this past season, finishing 21-3, and again the 3-pointer was a key tool in that pursuit. Brandywine made the record book with back-to-back games of 13 3-pointers to close the regular season, and finished with 175 3-pointers in 592 attempts over 23 games (with one won by forfeit).
Greenville’s Megan Leslie averaged more than two 3-pointers a game during her four-season varsity career, making the record list with 153 total over 76 games through graduation this spring. She’s continuing her career at Alma College.
Successful 3-point shooting played a major role in Saline finishing 21-4 with league and District titles last winter. The Hornets attempted 704 3-pointers – ninth-most all-time for one season – and connected on 191, which is 12th on that list. They made a season-high 14 against Ypsilanti Lincoln on Nov. 29 to make the single-game list.
Marcellus senior Brooklyn VanTilburg enjoyed a big finish to her high school career last winter, making the record book with 16 blocked shots in a game against Centreville and 135 blocks total for the season. She’ll continue at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Kennedy Gustafson made headlines last winter as a sophomore and earned a pair of record listings for her rebounding. She grabbed 26 in a March 3 District Final win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, and she finished with 376 rebounds over 25 games for the season.
PHOTO Hemlock's Regan Finkbeiner, left, follows through on a free throw attempt during last season's Division 3 Final, and Rockford's Grace Lyons launches the game-winning 3-pointer in Division 1.