It’s only fitting that Grand Haven’s varsity girls basketball team is returning to an arena adorned with a statue of player nicknamed “Magic.”
Everything about the Bucs’ season this winter has been magical, right down to their 43-35 victory over Grand Ledge in the Class A quarterfinals on Tuesday at Lansing Eastern High School’s Don Johnson Fieldhouse.
Grand Haven has followed the same script to flawless perfection all season — 26 games, 26 wins.
“It’s hard not to smile when you know you’re going back to the Breslin,” shouted Bucs’ senior center Abby Cole following the victory, ensuring Grand Haven a trip to Michigan State’s arena, the host of the state semifinals and finals. Grand Haven will be making its third-straight appearance in the state semifinals and is coming off a state championship last year.
This time, the awaiting challenger will be Westland John Glenn (24-1), which upset No. 1- ranked Detroit Martin Luther King on Tuesday, 55-50. In the other Class A semifinal, last season’s state runner-up, Grosse Pointe South, will face Dexter, which is making its first-ever semifinals appearance.
For more photos from Tuesday's win, click here.
For a gallery of Grand Haven's fans at Tuesday's games, click here.
Cole’s performance on Tuesday and the way the entire Bucs’ squad locked up the Comets defensively in key stretches had to put a smile on a lot of Grand Haven supporters.
Like she did in last season’s thrilling double overtime win in the quarterfinals against East Lansing, Cole recorded a triple double, finishing with 18 points, 15 blocked shots and 10 rebounds.
“She’s our emotional leader out there for us,” said Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer.
But Cole’s stat line would have been meaningless numbers had the Bucs not finished like champions in the fourth quarter. Grand Ledge rode a wave of momentum to open the quarter — and its strong cast of fans sensed it — after the Comets turned in an 8-2 spurt, keyed by a huge corner 3-pointer by junior guard Lindsay Orwat, tying the contest at 34 apiece with five minutes to play. Orwat led all scorers with 20 points.
But Grand Haven’s defense — keyed by on-the-ball pressure by wing Hannah Wilkerson — was stifling down the stretch, holding the Comets to just a single point to close out the game.
“We had some unforced turnovers early and they hit some big 3s, but that’s a good Grand Ledge team,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “They don’t start a senior and I’d put my money on them going to the Breslin next year.
“I can’t say enough about Hannah Wilkerson. That No. 3 (Grand Ledge’s Hannah Orwat) came in averaging 16 and Hannah shut her down for the most part.
“They just got it done. It wasn’t always pretty, but when you play good defense, it can make a huge difference.”
Instead of buckling under the pressure with the game on the line, Grand Haven calmed itself by feeding Cole, who rebounded her own miss and scored to put the Bucs back ahead for good on her team’s next possession.
Grand Haven added another huge basket moments later, as the Comets let Wilkerson slip free from their full-court pressure, allowing the Bucs senior to score a breakaway layup.
Cole swatted blocks No. 13, 14, and 15 in the next 90 seconds of action to keep the Comets grounded.
“Abby Cole was the difference,” said Grand Ledge coach David Jones, whose squad finishes its season at 21-5. “She has a way of dominating the game and making it hard for you to score. We just couldn’t score at the right opportunities. And we also didn’t convert on some free throw opportunities, which we have been very successful at this season.
“It’s hard to go bucket to bucket with them and miss a couple times and fall behind. It’s tough to come back.”
Sophomore Amanda Merz swished a pair of free throws with 1:40 remaining to put the Bucs on top 40-35, then forward Taylor Craymer, who totaled nine points, iced the victory with two big free throws with under a minute left, giving Grand Haven a comfortable 42-35 advantage.
Grand Haven struggled to find a comfort level in the early going, as the Bucs committed five turnovers in the opening five minutes of play and struggled to connect on open outside looks. Grand Ledge grabbed a 7-6 lead after one, and the contest remained tight throughout the second quarter, with the Bucs clutching a 17-16 advantage.
Cole had 10 points and eight blocks at the half, but Grand Ledge’s duo of 6-foot-3 center Cori Crocker and 6-1 forward Codie Drake weren’t afraid to go right at her in the post. Crocker, a sophomore, was the most effective, scoring nine points.
“They were making their space, making those baby hooks over me and working around me,” Cole said. “They had very respectable posts.”
Grand Haven finally created an edge on the scoreboard when it found some offensive production from its backcourt. Junior Mallory Beswick provided the scoring punch, as she scored all seven of her points in the opening five minutes of the third quarter, including a straightaway 3-pointer, as the Bucs surged to a 26-20 lead.
“My teammates hit me and I did my best to hit some shots,” Beswick said.
“She was huge in the third quarter,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “That gave us a five- or six-point cushion. We had some other guards come in and do some good things too like Courtney Springer and Grace Kendra. They each had a steal or played great defense. I felt they all contributed in one way or another.”
Although she had just two points, Merz was also brilliant in handling the Comets’ late-game pressure and finding open teammates. She totaled eight assists.
Grand Haven took a 32-26 lead into the fourth and then showed the heart of a champion to withstand one last rally from an underdog opponent. It was the type of performance that Kowalczyk-Fulmer first saw from her team in scrimmages during the summer, assuring her that another stellar season could be in store.
“It’s been our goal all season long to get back (to the Breslin) and I knew from watching us play in the summer that we had a chance with what we had coming back,” she said. “The kids have found a way to get better all season long and stay focused.”
Cole said that Kowalczyk-Fulmer urged her team to prove to the Comets that the champions are still alive and kicking.
“Before we came out she told us to show ‘em how it goes, how we do it, and we did,” Cole said.