Saddled with early foul trouble and her team locked in a dogfight with rival Grandville, Buccaneers’ senior Abby Cole knew she couldn’t afford to turn passive.
Instead, Cole continued to battle inside against Grandville’s star center Jessica Dood with the same intensity that she’s carried into every other game this season.
Cole finished with 16 blocked shots despite the foul trouble, helping lead a gritty Buccaneers’ defense that made up for a dismal offensive showing as Grand Haven outlasted Grandville, 36-26, to claim a third straight Class A regional title.
With the win, the Bucs (25-0) advance to Tuesday’s quarterfinals at Lansing Eastern High School, where they will face Grand Ledge (21-4), a 47-37 winner over Mattawan on Thursday.
“This is the first game I’ve had to play with foul trouble, and it’s a stressful thing,” said Cole, the Bucs’ Miss Basketball candidate who also scored eight points and dished out a team-high five assists.
Cole picked up her second foul when Dood snatched an offensive rebound and went up for a shot with 1.7 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Dood made both free throws, drawing the Bulldogs to within four points at 11-7.
After sitting for first few minutes of the second quarter, Cole returned to the court with 4:30 remaining, and she immediately showed that she meant business. The Bucs’ 6-foot-5 center swatted the 6-2 Dood on three consecutive possessions.
Cole picked up her third foul with 2:46 left in the third quarter, and Dood’s split at the line drew Grandville to within a point at 20-19 in the low-scoring affair.
“I picked up my third foul and (Coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer) was like, ‘You can not pick up your fourth,’” Cole said. “I just had to keep playing aggressive. A lot of people when they are in foul trouble start relaxing, but that’s something I don’t do, because as soon as I relax, they start making layups in my face, and that’s my pet peeve.”
There were no layups against the Bucs on Thursday. Cole made sure of that. Still, the Bulldogs kept pounding the ball inside to Dood, and she responded with a game-high 17 points, making 9-of-13 from the foul line. The rest of her team managed just nine points.
Neither team could get anything going on offense, but when her team needed it the most, junior guard Mallory Beswick hit the shot of the night for Grand Haven. With Grand Haven up by a point and Grandville’s large following of fans whipped into a frenzy, Beswick splashed in a 3-pointer to put her team on top 23-19 late in the third quarter.
Moments later, Cole blocked a shot by Dood, and when Hannah Wilkerson was fouled and swished a pair of free throws, the Bucs’ lead grew to 25-19 at the end of the third.
In the fourth, the Bucs showed plenty of patience, running over a minute off the clock on their first possession.
Grandville was forced to come out and start fouling, and the Bucs made 7-of-12 foul shots in the closing quarter to keep the Bulldogs at bay.
“They were packing it in, giving us some wide open looks, and we just didn’t shoot the ball very well tonight,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, whose team has now won 48 consecutive games. “If we knock some shots down, it’s a different game.
“In the second half, they were packing it in, and it’s like, ‘Why do we want to take outside shots, be one-and-done?’ So we said, let’s spread the floor, make them come get us, and they eventually had to. We didn’t make all our free throws, but we made enough from the line to keep that 8-9 point cushion.”
While Cole’s blocked shots disrupted things in the paint, Wilkerson’s defense on the Bulldogs’ crafty Liz Otten was equally impressive. Wilkerson held her friend and former AAU teammate to just two points on the night. Otten averages 14 per game.
“Hannah played the whole game and pretty much shut (Otten) down,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “You never know if your shots are going to drop, but you can always play good defense, and we held Grandville to 26 points, 10 in the second half. I’m happy with that.”
Wilkerson also scored seven points to go with three steals. Sophomore Amanda Merz tied Cole for the team lead with eight points, and also pulled down a team-high five rebounds to go with three assists.
Angie Schultz also grabbed five rebounds for the Bucs.
Grandville had a raucous crowd behind it, and the Bulldogs’ faithful went crazy every time their team made a positive play. That helped them stand toe-to-toe with the Bucs until Grand Haven was able to gain some separation late in the third quarter.
Coach Erika Brown said her team was thrilled for a third shot at their O-K Red rivals — the Bucs won the previous two meetings.