Arbor Prep advances to the quarterfinals with an impressive 59-39 victory over University Liggett
By Dave Holzman
Whitmore Lake – Ypsilanti Arbor Prep is back in the quarterfinals. And this year, everything feels different about it.
Arbor Prep won the much-anticipated game between the two top-ranked teams in Class C. Top-ranked Arbor Prep wore down Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, 59-39, in a regional championship at Whitmore Lake on Thursday to advance to Tuesday’s quarterfinal at Michigan Center High School.
Arbor Prep (21-3) will play Homer (21-4) with a coveted spot in the final four at the Breslin Center on the line.
Behind another stellar defensive performance and the 3-point shooting of senior Payton Sims, the Gators were dominant. Last year, playing in Class B, they lost to eventual champion Eaton Rapids. In 2012, Arbor Prep lost in the district championship game to eventual Class C champion Manchester.
“We’re more determined to win it all,” senior captain Zakiya Wells said. “We’ve lost to the state champs the last two years and so we’re determined to go all the way and not lose anymore.”
But this postseason, the Gators are the favorites to win it all and are handling the pressure that comes with playing with the target on your back.
They are playing like a team determined to reach their ultimate goal. This week alone, they knocked off two of the top six teams in Class C – University Liggett and Blissfield – winning each game by 20 points. This comes on the heels of winning their district by a combined score of 137-25.
And they’ve done it mostly with defense, the staple of the Gators.
“We work over half our practice on defense,” Arbor Prep coach Rod Wells said. “The girls are buying into it. We just went at them. We didn’t back down.
“My guards straight-up stayed in front of them (guards Lola Ristovski and Nia Ahart) with no help and played great defense on them. They didn’t let them penetrate, they didn’t let them shoot. Phenomenal defense by my guards.”
On offense, junior guard Nastassja Chambers led Arbor Prep with 20 points, seven rebounds and three steals.
It was the 3-point shooting of senior guard Payton Sims that was the key.
Sims opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers as Arbor Prep raced to a 9-0 lead. Sims broke the game open with another 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, forcing University Liggett to call timeout as Arbor Prep’s eight-point lead after three quarters quickly grew to 13.
Sims, who has been trying to fight through a bit of a shooting slump late in the regular season, was 5-for-11 on 3-point attempts and finished with 17 points. She also had six rebounds and two steals.
“Before the game I pulled her over and just told her don’t worry about what has happened in the past, don’t worry about any of those things,” coach Wells said. “Tonight is a new season. You can set yourself apart from everybody else these next four games.
“She was down a little bit and she stepped up and hit shots. I’m proud of her.”
Junior guard Kendall McConico led University Liggett (19-4) with 15 points, but she had to work for every point. Ristovski, a senior, was held to seven points.
And despite what the rankings say, Rod Wells did not declare Thursday’s game as the de facto state championship game. He knows his Gators have to win three more before they can raise the trophy that they most desire.
“We don’t think we won a state championship by any means,” he said. “Tonight was a big game but we will be ready to play hard on Tuesday. … Right now, I just want to get to the Breslin.”