Despite facing a four-point deficit late in the game, and offensive production coming at a premium for both teams, the Buccaneers bonded together through defensive intensity to rally for a 37-30 home win over West Ottawa on Friday night.
"I think it was 30-26 with less than four minutes to go in the fourth quarter," said Grand Haven head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "We were down four points, not scoring much, and I thought, ‘this is not going to go well.'
"Dahlia (Jerovsek) came in and played inspired in the fourth quarter. If she didn't do what she did, I don't think we would have won. She came in and forced two turnovers in the backcourt, and we were able to come back."
More photos from Friday night’s game
Senior guard Autumn Buikema scored a career-high 14 points, including three 3-pointers, to lead the Bucs (7-2, 1-1 O-K Red), while Alli Keyser added nine points and five assists and Sophie Mariani added eight points, three assists, six rebounds and five steals.
"They ran a box-and-1 defense on Alli Keyser and that took her out of her game a little bit," Kowalczyk-Fulmer added. "Other kids stepped up though. Autumn Buikema played really well and was knocking down some big shots when we needed them. Sophie Mariani battled through foul trouble, but had eight points and led us with six rebounds and five steals.
"Keyser didn't get the shots tonight but had nine points and five assists. She found her teammates for good looks, and she got to the free-throw line at the end of the game when we needed her to.
"Maggie Long had six points as a starter tonight. She did a nice job finishing around the rim. It was just a team win — nobody played outstanding, but everyone contributed."
The win keeps the Buccaneers in the conference race and may have helped establish a new collective identity behind the effort and hustle of a few players.
"Sometimes it isn't pretty, but the kids didn't roll over and they found a way to win. I credit Dahlia and Olivia (McMullen) for being that spark off the bench that we needed.
"Like I said, it would feel a heck of a lot worse if we lost. All the credit to West Ottawa and the emotions they are dealing with. It was a tragic beginning to the game. I was happy they were able to play through that and they play us really tough. They are really well coached and gave us a battle. I'm happy our kids found a way to win this one."
Natalie Dunn scored 12 points to lead the Panthers (6-2, 1-2 O-K Red), while Maria Price added six.
"Natalie played tough. She's disappointed that we lost like we all are. We didn't play very well in the fourth quarter at all. All the credit in the world to Grand Haven; they hit some big shots in that last quarter and put a lot of pressure on us," said West Ottawa head coach Paul Chapman. "It seemed like we kind of backed off and didn't make the plays down the stretch that we needed to make to stick with them."
The entire West Ottawa community was reeling Friday night after the saddening news that the son of West Ottawa Superintendent Thomas Martin had died tragically.
"The girls are playing with a lot of emotion tonight. They found out before we left for the game that one of their friends died," Chapman added. "We didn't seem to carry through the game like we could have. I don't want to make excuses, but that obviously was a factor for us tonight."
The game was a homecoming of sorts for Chapman, as he spent several years coaching the Grand Haven boys freshmen team.
"Grand Haven is a great program and Katie (Kowalczyk-Fulmer) is the best coach in the league," Chapman continued. "They've got some great players, and it's fun coming back here. At the end of the day, though, we aren't satisfied with losing. You don't get any credit for leading at halftime and the third quarter if you aren't leading at the final buzzer."
Grand Haven held a slim 7-6 lead after the first quarter, but the Panthers clawed back to take a one-point lead at halftime at 17-16.
West Ottawa appeared to take control in the third quarter behind the play of junior guard Natalie Dunn and senior Maria Price. Dunn would fight through traffic and knock down a buzzer-beating midrange jumper to give the Panthers a 27-24 lead heading into the final quarter of play.
The fourth quarter would be all Grand Haven, however, as the Bucs outscored the Panthers 13-3 thanks to a smothering full-court press and some timely baskets on the offensive end.
With Grand Haven holding a narrow 31-30 lead with less than two minutes to play, junior guard Alli Keyser connected with senior forward Sophie Mariani on an entry pass and Mariani finished through contact for an and-one opportunity.
The four-year varsity player calmly sank the free-throw attempt and gave the Bucs a 34-30 lead and all the momentum.
Senior center Maggie Long would add a layup in transition and the Bucs would add a late free throw to bring the game to its final tally.
Grand Haven travels to Hudsonville (8-1), while West Ottawa hosts No. 1-ranked East Kentwood on Tuesday with tip-off of both games slated for 7 p.m.