Underdog Grosse Pointe South, which had never won even a regional title prior to this season, built an 18-point lead on the No. 1-ranked Bucs with under two minutes left in the quarter. Even the normally raucous Grand Haven student section was eerily quiet at that point, sensing that their team was in trouble.
Bucs’ senior Alex Law — a four-year varsity standout — wasn’t content for being just second best. Grand Haven’s tri-captain shouted at her teammates — and even at the bench — urging them that if there was a time for a comeback, it was now.
“I just said, “Let’s go, let’s do this,’” said Law. “This is our last game. We’ve got to do this now.”
Remarkably, the Bucs responded.
Grand Haven’s furious rally in the fourth quarter — which may go down as the most memorable stretch of play in its program’s history — was capped by a thrilling coast-to-coast layup by senior Shar’Rae Davis with six seconds left, putting the Bucs up 54-53.
Grosse Pointe South freshman guard Cierra Rice tried to match Davis’ heroics with a determined drive and go-ahead score of her own, but Rice got caught under the basket for a tough-angled layup attempt that bounced off the bottom of the backboard. The loose ball sprung back towards mid-court as time expired, sending Grand Haven players into a mad dash towards screaming teammates for a jubilant celebration.
Grand Haven’s one-point victory clinched the program’s first-ever state championship, and also the first for 14-year head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. In the process, Grand Haven entered state title lore for unthinkable turnarounds. The Bucs’ 18-point comeback on the Blue Devils was the third-largest in girls’ state title history.
Not surprisingly, the first word out of Kowalczyk-Fulmer’s mouth at the postgame press conference was, “Wow.”
“I kept telling the girls that we couldn’t get back into it all at once,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, whose squad finishes its season at 27-1. “Obviously, we picked up the intensity and our press caused some steals and we got the ball inside to Abby (Cole) and Shar’Rae got to the rim a few times. It was a total team effort for sure.”
Grand Haven’s full-court pressure — led by blazing-quick senior guard Jordan Keefe — helped create seven Grosse Pointe South turnovers in the fourth quarter alone. As a result, Grand Haven erased its 44-26 deficit with a 14-0 run.
“Our team is so aggressive to begin with, so I thought it was a really good idea when we switched to man,” said Keefe. “In that situation, we all go 100 percent and when it started working, we just felt more and more confident.”
“In the past couple of games when the pressure got on us we haven’t always handled it well,” added South head coach Kevin Richards said. “Them making that adjustment to go inside, throwing it into the big girl definitely hurt, but no doubt the turnovers were a big factor in us losing that lead.”
Grand Haven pounded the ball into Cole on its opening three possessions of the fourth quarter and the 6-foot-5 junior center was fouled on each trip. She converted on all six free throw attempts, and connected on 8-of-9 for the contest. Cole finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.
Her performance at the foul line undoubtedly erased the memory of a painful late free throw miss last season in the Bucs’ one-point loss to Detroit Renaissance in the semifinals.
Even after the Bucs closed to within 44-40 on Megan Newhouse’s layup, the Blue Devils responded. Back-to-back buckets by Catherine Palazzolo and Rice gave South an eight-point cushion with 5:35 to play.
But Grand Haven — especially Davis — was just warming up.
The Bucs’ senior point guard scored eight of her game-high 19 points over the next 3 1/2 minutes, including a pair of free throws with 1:10 left that gave Grand Haven its first lead since it was 2-0 in the first quarter.
Keefe split two free throws with 26 seconds left to put the Bucs up 52-50, but a three-point play by the Blue Devisl’ Rice gave her squad a one-point cushion with 16 seconds to go.
“I was pretty much freaking out after she made that shot,” Keefe said of Rice’s hoop and ensuing free throw.
In the Bucs’ timeout prior to Rice’s foul shot, Kowalczyk-Fulmer called for a play “1-4 low,” which cleared the court for Davis to dribble drive and create.
“Anytime we’re in that situation my goal is to get to the rim and either they’ll foul me or I’ll make it,” Davis said. “My mind-set was ‘I have to score. I have to score.’”
Davis’ layup over a flat-footed Blue Devils’ defender sent Grand Haven fans into hysteria, but there was still enough time for Rice to drive to the rim from mid-court.
Richards said he thought Rice drew some contact in the paint on her final drive, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a foul call with the game on the line. The Blue Devils’ coach was more disappointed that his team coughed up what seemed like an insurmountable lead.
“We made plays all but right up to the very end,” Richards said, who led the Blue Devils to a 23-4 record. “The game plan worked. We just needed better ball security.”
The Blue Devils finished with 19 turnovers.
Grosse Pointe South thrived through three quarters by dominating the rebounding advantage and relying on the outside shooting skills of 6-foot center Claire DeBoer. DeBoer had 3-point range, which forced the Bucs’ Cole out of the paint to defend. With the Bucs’ long-armed post presence out of the way, it allowed the Blue Devils to gobble up 21 offensive rebounds, including seven from 5-10 forward Palazzolo. She finished with a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) — one of three South players to do so. DeBoer had 13 points and 10 boards, and senior guard Caitlin Moore totaled 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Grand Haven trailed by 25-16 at the half after it shot just 29 percent from the floor and was outrebounded 26-12.
“We were just a step slow, and ... we weren’t boxing out on the backside,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. “It just seemed like we were one-and-done offensively and they were coming up with everything.
“And then the start of the second half, it went from bad to worse.”
Bucs’ leading scorer Law had a quiet game with just three points on 1-of-8 shooting, but was proud her teammates picked up the slack. One player in particular was Newhouse, who battled hard on the boards and scored five of her seven points in the second half.
”That’s why we’re such a good team,” Law said. “When someone can’t do something, there’s someone else there to do it. That’s why we won.”
Another factor was the Bucs’ brilliant determination, even when the cards were clearly stacked against them through three quarters. It was the same trait showcased when they erased a nine-point halftime deficit to East Lansing during Tuesday’s quarterfinal thriller.
“It just came down to, ‘You gotta believe,’” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “The kids really kept their composure and they kept battling back. It’s really a credit to the girls for sticking to the game plan and executing when we needed it the most.”