Coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer’s Grand Haven varsity girls basketball team assured itself of at least a share of a third consecutive O-K Red Conference title with Friday’s impressive 57-44 win over visiting Grandville.
The Buccaneers improve to 18-0 on the season and 8-0 in O-K Red play with Friday’s victory. Grandville, considered the Bucs’ No. 1 challenger to the top spot, falls to 5-3 in the conference.
“We knew we had to come out strong,” said Bucs’ sophomore point guard Amanda Merz, who jump-started her team with several high-energy plays, including a pair of key steals in the second quarter that sparked a 7-0 Bucs’ run.
Grand Haven led 12-10 at the end of the first quarter thanks to 3-pointers by Taylor Craymer and Angie Schultz.
The Bucs gained a bit of separation in the second quarter Merz dove out of bounds to save a ball, then went up high in a crowd to tip a rebound to a teammate, leading to Crayler’s reverse layup.
Abby Cole followed with a crowd-pleasing two-handed block on Grandville’s Rachel Bowman, and Craymer scored again for a 20-13 Bucs’ advantage.
Cole picked up her second foul later in the second quarter and sat down for the final 2:26, but her team maintained the lead thanks to a pair of driving buckets by Merz.
In the third, Grandville made a run, clawing to within three points at 26-23 on a long two-pointer by Renay Palmer.
A 3-pointer by the Bulldogs’ Anna Omness trimmed the Bucs’ lead to just two points at 30-28, but Merz again sparked her team. Her tie-up gave the Bucs the ball and led to a pair of free throws by Schultz. On Grandville’s next possession, Merz stole the blal at midcourt and fed it to Hannah Wilkerson, who scored, was fouled and made the free throw for a 37-28 advantage.
“I knew it was a close game, and I just wanted to play as hard as I could,” Merz said. “I wanted to stay up on my girl because I know she’s a 3-point shooter and I didn’t want to give her any looks.”
The Bucs never let Grandville get much closer thanks to a clutch second half by Cole. The 6-foot-5 center showed perhaps her best shooting touch of the season, scoring on several nice moves in the paint and also knocking down 8-of-10 free throws. She finished with a game-high 22 points, including 20 after halftime.
“We were swinging the ball, and when we swing the ball, it makes it easier to get it inside to Abby,” Merz said. “In the second half, we wanted to fix our mistakes, take care of the ball, make some free throws.”
Cole finished with eight rebound and eight blocks for the Bucs, while Craymer added 10 boards, including five on the offensive end, to go with three assists.
Wilkerson scored eight points, had four assists and grabbed eight rebounds, while Mallory Beswick had three steals.
“Merz played really well,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “She’s such a smart player. The things she does, you can’t coach.
“Grandville’s a well-coached team. They came out team. They came out and knw they had a chance to win. They were playing for a chance at sharing the conference title. We didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but we played better in the second half. We passed better, boxed out better, played with more of a sense of urgency.”
The Bucs wrap up their season with games at West Ottawa on Tuesday and at Hudsonville next Friday.