The Grand Haven girls basketball season came to an end Monday at the hands of perennial playoff rival Muskegon with a 52-47 decision in the opening round of the district tournament at Reeths-Puffer High School.
The game had all the excitement, emotion and stellar play of one featuring over 30 wins between the two teams, a Miss Basketball finalist and one school’s all-time leading scorer. Muskegon led at every quarter break, while Grand Haven led for stretches in the first, second and fourth periods.
In the end, the Bucs failed to capitalize on a crucial Muskegon turnover with 23 seconds to go. Stellar Big Red defense blew Grand Haven’s inbound play up, forcing an off-balance attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer. The shot fell short, forcing the Bucs to foul. Muskegon would sink both free throws with two seconds left to play, sealing their five-point victory.
“That’s a good team, obviously,” said Grand Haven head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. “They have a lot of weapons. In a game like this, you go out and play as hard as you can and if you do, then no regrets. I’m proud of my kids. We were down and were able to battle all the way to the end. We had our chances, Muskegon just made the plays down the stretch.
“Trophies are great, and I really wanted to see this team win a trophy because they have put in so much time. But, it’s really about the relationships you develop along the way. We have a lot to be proud of at 17-4. Unfortunately, 50 percent of the teams in the state lost tonight and we were one of them. The sun will come up tomorrow. I’m really proud of my team. It is a tough group to say goodbye to.”
The Bucs got stellar performances out of their key players in the postseason, rivalry matchup. Junior shooting guard Jolee Houle led with 18 points and seven rebounds, while swiping two steals. Alli Keyser struggled to score against a well-tailored defense, electing to dish eight assists and nab four steals to lead the team, while adding in four rebounds and 10 points.
Center Esther Byington poured in 14 points and administered four blocks and two steals, while Kelly Olthof added six points, five rebounds, two assists and one block.
Grand Haven was keen on slowing down Alyza Winston, holding her to 11 points — far below her season average of 28. It was the Miss Basketball finalist’s supporting cast that powered the win, as Bri Alexander poured in 21 points and Dynasti Dowell scored 16.
“We played zone to try and help on her. They are quicker than us at every position, so its tough for us,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “Esther had a big block on her early. She can get to the rim but she is also a very good passer. I think we played with a little more urgency on her than their other players, who can all score, and that hurt us eventually.”
The game started under complete Grand Haven control, as Muskegon struggled to find their shooting stroke in the opening minutes. A long jumper by Olthof, a nice roll to the basket by Byington and a Houle 3-pointer put the Bucs up 7-2 off the bat, with the Big Reds’ only points coming off a Winston steal and score.
Muskegon got back in the game via the free-throw line, drawing three and-1 trips to the charity stripe in the final three minutes of the quarter, eventually taking a 10-7 lead and holding for a 12-9 lead at the first break.
Two quick baskets to start the second put the Bucs up 13-12 and kicked off a furious scoring run for both teams. The two went shot-for-shot for the first four minutes of play, pushing the pace on both ends in an effort to separate. Neither team would fold during the push with ties at 15-15, and 19-19, before Muskegon hit a 3-pointer to take a 22-21 lead and the Bucs took their foot off the gas.
A split-trip to the free-throw line put Muskegon up 23-21 following the scoring flurry as they threatened to pull away. Keyser answered by burying her first three-point attempt of the day to swing back into the lead.
The Big Reds strung together two baskets to end the quarter, the first back-to-back baskets by either team in the period, to take a 27-24 lead into halftime.
The second half moved from a game of pace to a battle for space as the physicality picked up around the basket. Both teams nailed a 3-pointer to kick things off before digging into the rebound battle.
The extra contact shook the Bucs at first, allowing Muskegon to balloon their lead to 35-27 with 5:18 left in the quarter. Houle’s second 3-pointer of the quarter stemmed the bleeding, kicking off a 7-2 run for Grand Haven to get back in the game.
Keyser found her way to the free-throw line for the first time all night late in the third, closing the gap back to 37-36 with two good shots.
With one minute left to play, Keyser netted a breakaway basket through heavy contact, drawing the foul before the shot fell. The senior point guard let the gym know, drawing a technical foul. She would miss her single free throw, while Winston hit both attempts for the Big Reds to give them a 43-38 lead heading into the fourth.
Keyser would right the deficit with the first points of the fourth, drawing a trip to the free-throw line and sinking both. The Big Reds responded with a stalling play, broken up by a nifty steal by Houle, who took it to the hoop to bring the game back to 43-42 with 6:30 left to play.
Byington would grab the next points, rolling wide open to the hoop and receiving an assist from Keyser to take a 44-43 lead.
The one-point lead would hold into crunchtime as the Buc sled 46-45 with three minutes left to play after a pair of Houle free throws. Muskegon would take it right back with a bucket heading into the final two minutes, forcing a Grand Haven timeout on their next possession.
The timeout came with 2:14 left to play with the Bucs hoping to grab another score to put the pressure on Muskegon. The inbound pass from the baseline sailed high and out of bounds, shifting control back to the Big Reds.
Alexander took advantage, dropping a neat swim move to the hoop for a three-point lead and 1:53 to play. Grand Haven would miss a 3-pointer on their next possession, sending Muskegon to the free-throw line for a split-trip as the final minute approached.
Houle responded with a hard drive of her own, picking up a blocking call and a trip to the line. She would hit one of two, cutting the lead back to three with less than one minute to play.
The Bucs needed a steal, and the Big Reds gave it to them. With 23.6 seconds to play, the Grand Haven pressure forced a lofty pass to sail out of bounds, giving the Bucs a chance to tie with a final-possession 3-pointer.
Kowalczyk-Fulmer called a timeout to draw up a set play, trying to get the ball in Keyser’s hands. Muskegon was all over the play, forcing Houle to throw up a contested shot as the clock wound down. Winston gathered the rebound and the Bucs fouled. Her two made free throws brought on the final score.
“Every possession is crucial,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “We only had two turnovers in the second half. Take away that one and maybe the pressure is on Muskegon at the end to foul.
“It obviously wasn’t the shot we wanted. But, Jolee shot well all night and time ran out so she had to put it up. That’s basketball. It bounces a different way and we win the game. You have to live with the results.
“This one is tough. There is a lot of emotion. It is a big game because there is so much on the line, playing against a team we haven’t been able to get in the past. The girls left it all on the court and played their hearts out and I’m proud of that.
“In the locker room, it is all about the seniors. This was a tough senior class and to say goodbye to seven kids that have really done a ton for this program and put so much time in is hard.”
Muskegon advances to play Grand Rapids Union (9-10) after their first-round bye and will likely face the winner of Reeths-Puffer (12-7) vs. Kenowa Hills (4-14) in the district final.