Grand Haven’s seniors weren’t about to let their last game on their home court end with anything but a victory.
Rival Muskegon put a scare into the Buccaneers in the first half, but the Bucs weathered the storm and blew out the Big Reds in the second half, resulting in a 52-33 victory in the championship game of the Class A district tournament.
The win wraps up the Bucs’ fourth consecutive district title. Grand Haven, now 23-0 on the season and winners of 46 straight games over the past two seasons, advances to Tuesday’s Class A regional semifinal at Traverse City West High School. The Bucs will face Gaylord (13-9), a 31-26 winner over Traverse City West on Friday.
“We’re just so happy,” said Bucs’ senior center Abby Cole, who finished with a jaw-dropping 16 blocked shots and 16 rebounds to go with her eight points. “This was one of our goals, and we completed it. It’s a great feeling.
“The seniors and I were talking at the end of the bench when we were out, saying to each other, this is the last time we’re every going to play here. It hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s sad, but it’s a good ending.”
Cole helped the Buccaneers get off to a fast start as they led 7-0 just minutes into the game. That lead grew to 15-4 at the end of the first quarter thanks to four points each from Cole and Hannah Wilkerson and a 3-pointer by Taylor Craymer.
But Muskegon (15-8) would not go down quietly.
The champions of the O-K Black Conference turned up the defensive pressure in the second quarter, and their press forced the Bucs into turnovers on each of their first four possessions and eight give-aways in the opening four minutes of the second.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” said Bucs’ coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, who has guided her team to a 76-2 record over the past three years. “We got up 15-4, and I thought we dictated the tempo in the first quarter. Then, in the second quarter, we started to have problems with the press break. We were passing too much, just trying to make long floater passes, and they were licking their chops, making layups off our bad passes.”
Fortunately for the Bucs, their defense picked up in intensity as the offense fell off. Muskegon had plenty of chances to cut into the lead, and did trim the advantage down to 19-14 at the half, but it could have been much worse if not for a flurry of blocked shots by Cole and solid perimeter defense by Wilkerson and others.
The Big Reds continued to cut into the Bucs’ lead at the star of the third quarter, pulling to within a point at 19-18 on a post basket by junio center Jade Paige.
The Bucs answered with a quick pass ahead to beat the press, leading to Wilkerson’s layup. She was fouled on the play and made the free throw. After a defensive stop, Wilkerson splashed in a 3-pointer, and her own personal six-point run pushed the Bucs’ lead up to 25-18 with 4:39 remaining in the third.
Muskegon got back to within three points on Mardrieka Cook’s bucket a minute later, but the Bucs answered with a fantastic pick-and-roll from Craymer to Wilkerson for a layup. Wilkerson scored inside again moments later, then the Bucs’ defense forced a turnover, leading to a 3-on-1 break. Merz fed the ball to Craymer, who found Wilkerson for a layup and a 31-22 advantage.
The Big Reds never got closer the rest of the way.
Wilkerson, who drew the difficult task of trying to slow down Muskegon’s phenomenal freshman Cook, did well on the defensive end, holding Cook to just 10 points, and also thrived on offense. She scored 10 of her game-high 18 points in the pivotal third quarter. Wilkerson also had four assists, three rebounds and three steals.
“It was nerve-wracking,” she said. “They’re a team of runs, and they can make a run and really take the game over. We just tried to focus, sit down, play defense, and I tried to let my offense come through my defense.
“The second quarter, we had a big cushion, so we didn’t come out as hard as we did in the first. We had a big third quarter, and in the fourth, we realized we wanted it. It was our last home game, and we wanted to put it away.”
Muskegon bullied Cole inside, holding her to just eight points, but that opened up Craymer to score 11 points. Grace Kendra scored four on a pair of nice drives to the basket, and Angie Schultz, who started at the off-guard spot, had a bucket and played great defensively.
Craymer finished with six assists and 10 rebounds for Grand Haven, while Amanda Merz had three of the Bucs’ 17 assists.
“I told the girls, it’s amazing what we can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “That’s what’s so fun about this team is they find the open person. They’re fun to watch.”
Paige also scored 10 for Muskegon, and Kierra Guy added nine.
“We struggled to put together four solid quarters,” said Muskegon coach Taushauna Burrel. “We played in spurts, but the times we played really good basketball, those spurts were shorter than the plays we took off.
“This is a lesson learned for a very young group that has never been here before going up against a very seasoned program.”
Burrel said going up against the 6-foot-5 Cole is a huge challenge for her team, which doesn’t feature a player over 6-feet tall.
“She definitely is a game-changer, having her inside,” Burrel said.
Cole, who averages more than 7 blocked shots per game, said her teammates know that if they get beat off the dribble, they have help waiting for them inside.
“My team knows that if they’re beat, I’ll have their back,” she said with a grin. “I always tell them ever possession, I’ve got their back.”
BUCS’ RIVAL FALLS
If Grand Haven reaches the Class A quarterfinals for a third consecutive year, they’ll have a different opponent waiting for them.
The past two seasons, the Buccaneers have faced off against East Lansing in the quarterfinals at Lansing Eastern High School, including last year’s thrilling double-overtime victory.
The two teams, both ranked in the top five in the state all year, appeared poised for another meeting this winter, but East Lansing couldn’t uphold its end of the deal. The Trojans (21-2) lost to Grand Ledge (19-4) in their district championship game on Friday, 51-49.