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D1 FINALS: Saginaw Heritage dusts off zone to stifle Southfield A&T, send out Big 3 as two-time champions

D1 FINALS: Saginaw Heritage dusts off zone to stifle Southfield A&T, send out Big 3 as two-time champions
BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY Mar 23, 4:20pm

GRAND RAPIDS — In the end, Saginaw Heritage’s title defense was just that.

Dusting off the zone defense they hadn’t used since last year’s championship game, the Hawks stifled Southfield A&T, holding the Warriors to a season-low in scoring in a 55-40 victory in the Division 1 championship game at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena, earning a repeat championship.

There wasn’t any other way the Hawks’ big three of Mo Joiner, Shine Strickland-Gills and Mallory McCartney wanted to go out.

“Right now, it’s very exciting, because this is the best way to go out, winning a state championship with my best friends,” McCartney said.

“After 11 years of playing together, I love these guys, and this is the only way we were going to go out. There was no doubt,” Joiner said.

“It feels really good. It’s like surreal that we did it again, together, but I’m happy. I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else. And I’m happy I could do it with them,” Strickland-Gills said. “I'm still in shock right now, so it hasn’t really hit me that it’s our last game, but I know afterward I’m going to be very emotional. I’m probably going to have to call them crying. But yeah, we pretty much just knew what we wanted — everybody wants to win two back-to-back titles. Who doesn’t?”

The three seniors — bound for Michigan State, Central Michigan and Ferris State, respectively — finish with a career record of 94-7, with two state championships.

“Wow. We were just walking up, and discussing the fact that I don’t think it’s hit us yet that we’ve won two in a row. We’re kind of in shock, but we're pretty excited about it, and it’s due in large part to the four years of these three kids. They’re seniors, and they didn't want to go out with a loss today, and they played like it,” Heritage coach Vonnie DeLong said.

“Having been in this game before, having been in big games, was just huge. They just knew. I talked to them this morning and I told them, ‘Look, this is it. Last time you’re ever going to play together. You’re going to keep playing, but not together. This is the last chance you’ve got. And I’m telling you right now, last game, senior year, if you can go out a winner, that’s absolutely the way you want to go. Because you don't want to go out losing in this game, if you don't have to. Do everything possible that you guys can to win today, because it’s something you can have forever.’ They just do. They get it, and they step up.”

Give props, too, to DeLong for realizing that her troops — not the deepest squad around — was gassed after a physical battle with Wayne Memorial in Friday’s semifinals, making the decision to go with the zone to save any bit of their legs that she could.

“I don’t think we played a whole game of zone this year. We probably did a couple of times last year, and it worked in the final,” said DeLong, who employed it against Flint Carman-Ainsworth and finals foe East Lansing in last year’s playoff run, but hadn’t gone back to it since.

“We just decided yesterday, after the game we had yesterday with Wayne, it was so physical, so up-and-down, so fast-paced — we were tired. I’m playing six kids, so we needed some legs, with the one-day turnaround. And we could not have Shine in foul trouble like she was yesterday, with that team today, so I just decided zone was going to be our best bet. So we talked about it last night, watched some film, and did some walk-through at a gym this morning. Most of them have played our zone enough that they know what to do, but a couple of our kids are a little shaky, but we got them through, and it worked.”

The plan was for the Hawks (25-2) to use the zone until the Warriors (24-2) made them stop.

It kept working, so they never had to abandon it.

The Warriors (24-2) led for less than a minute in the game, falling behind early — thanks to 31 percent shooting in the first quarter, and 25 percent in the second — and never managing to make enough of a dent in the Heritage lead to make a difference.

“Just tough game today. We didn’t shoot well, and Heritage played with some poise that we were searching for a little bit. They made some runs, and we made some runs, but just not big enough to cut into the lead. But it doesn’t diminish from the wonderful season these young ladies have had,” A&T coach Michele Marshall said. “They were in a zone, and the zone packed it in a little, and we were struggling to find some gaps in order to attack. What we do is we play inside-out, and it just appeared those gaps were not there. We faced zone in our league the entire time, but they really did pack it in, and kind of made it difficult to get off shots.”

Heritage led 13-10 after a quarter, but used a 12-4 advantage in the second quarter to stretch the lead out to 25-14 at the half. That second-quarter struggle for A&T coincided with Alexis Johnson heading to the bench with her second and third fouls, taking away a key high post component for the Warriors against the zone.

“It changed (the plan), because she’s such a critical part of what we do,” Marshall said. “This has been one of the more entertaining and fun teams I’ve had to coach, and the hard part is when you see kids that you love and care about who are hurting, because they just didn’t have their best game today. But it is very special to be here, and I’m still extremely proud of them as young ladies.”

Soleil Barnes led A&T with 14 points, hitting four 3-pointers to try to shoot the Hawks out of the zone, while Cheyenne McEvans had 13 points.

Joiner had 17 points to lead all scorers, adding eight rebounds and eight assists, while Strickland-Gills had 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The biggest surprise, though, might have been the 12 points chipped in by Keyonie Champion, helping to combat the Warriors’ taller front line.

“She’s a kid that didn’t really start playing basketball until high school, two years ago. She played JV for two years, and this summer, she started playing with us, and we’re all like ‘OK, we just gotta work with her. She’ll get this. She’s gonna get it. She’s gonna get it,’” DeLong said. “She struggled a lot throughout the season. Her season kind of went up and down. She’d have a decent game, and then she’d have bad ones, but she’s learning. She’d get frustrated, and we’d have to explain, ‘Hey, you’re learning. We’ve got plenty of time. As long as when that district tournament starts, you’re ready to go, we should be all right.’ And I don’t know if she was ready when districts started, but she was ready today. She saved her best for last. She had a great game. … It was fantastic to watch, actually.”

It was another heartbreak for an A&T squad that’s made runs to the semis and finals in its first three years of its existence, after the merger of Southfield High and Southfield-Lathrup.

“Very special. You work very hard for several months to ultimately be the last team to play on the big stage,” Marshall said. “It's a program that two out of the last three years has been in the final four, and that cannot be something that you can ever take away from the program. It’s a young program, but it will continue to grow. … There’s plenty of talent left here, and the program is really off to a great start, and will continue to grow, as will the school.”

The Warriors graduate both Johnson and Barnes, but return McEvans, center Jasmine Worthy and point guard Kayiona Willis. The Hawks may take a bigger hit from graduation, just because of what that big three seniors have meant to the resurgence of the program.

“Obviously, senior leadership is huge. Last year, we had a couple of seniors, but these three have kind of been leaders since they’ve gotten here, four years ago. They stepped on the floor at Heritage and kind of haven’t looked back since. They’ve really been the backbone of what we’ve done,” DeLong said.

“They were eighth graders the last time we were in a final four, and they all cut school and came down — it was at the Breslin Center, and they were in eighth grade — they came down and watched Heritage. We lost that day. They told me that day, ‘We’re getting back here, and we’re winning it, coach.’ They made good on their promise to me. I give them props for that.”