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D2 FINALS: Defense leads Portland past Newaygo, to first-ever state championship

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, April 9, 2021, 8:26 pm

EAST LANSING — When the Portland Raiders had a cancellation in the middle of their schedule, they grabbed up a midweek game with Newaygo, thinking that it would help them in their quest to get the the title game.

Never dreaming that it would be their opponent in the Division 2 championship, and that the game would provide them with the blueprint to win their first crown. 

The Raiders worked incessantly on defending the ball screens that Newaygo runs for sisters Jaxi and Jaylee Long, and held them to 13 total points, winning Friday’s rematch, 52-32, to claim their first-ever state title. 

“A dream. All five of us have been playing together for so long, and since we were little, we just dreamed of winning a state championship, and when it (the clock) hit zero, I just … I don’t know, it’s amazing,” said Breckyn Werner. 

For the Raiders (20-2), it was all about defense. 

“We came into this game with one thing in mind and one thing only: We knew we had to defend, and we had to defend at a high level. We knew who we had to take away. We had to take away the Long sisters. They’re great shooters, and they make you account for them all over the floor,” Portland coach Jason Haid said. 

“We knew we had to defend ball screens, so we spent a ton of time working on defending ball screens. The first time we played them, we struggled at times defending that ball screen. Our post players did a heck of a job stepping out and showing on those ball screens. Bottom line, I told the girls we’re going to get the win if we can defend and rebound. And we did.”

Saturday’s game was a chance to rekindle the success from a decade ago, then take it one step further. 

Portland hadn’t won a regional title since 2010, and hadn’t gotten past the semifinals, despite three cracks at it. 

“This is a proud tradition Portland girls basketball has. Always been in the mix. In the early 2000s, they had it going. They had it going before I got here. They went to a few final fours, won a lot of regionals, won a lot of conference championships,” Haid said. “It was about restoring some of that, and taking the next step. We talked all year about taking the next step for us. Well, what’s the next step for us? We wanted to win the regional. And then the next step beyond that? I think we did OK.”

It was the perfect ending to a season that maybe others didn’t think could be, but the Raiders did.

“I honestly knew from the beginning of the season we knew it was possible,” senior Ava Gruber said. “We knew what we were capable of, and obviously winning regionals gave us that much more hope and push to win states.”

The way to the crown certainly opened up with several key contenders — including three-time defending champ Detroit Edison, the Division 2 favorite — going out early in the tournament, either from COVID concerns or from missing players for various reasons. But that doesn’t take anything away from what the Raiders did — and believed they could do.

“We’re going to play who’s in front of us. … It was unfortunate some teams had to exit the tournament early, but we’re going to play whoever’s in front of us, and these girls, they just kept driving, kept driving,” Haid said. “All year, it was on their mind, that they could do this. It didn’t matter who was in the tournament, who wasn’t. We’re going to go in and give it our all, and luckily for us, we played very well tonight.”

The two teams played evenly through a quarter, before Alivia Densmore beat the buzzer to give Portland (20-2) a 9-8 lead to take to the second. She’d do the same thing before the halftime buzzer, the final points in an 11-4 quarter that gave them a 20-12 lead at the break. 

And they’d just continue to pile it on from there’s outscoring Newaygo (21-2) by a 22-13 margin in the third to take a 42-25 lead into the fourth.

The Portland defense held Newaygo to 3-for-19 shooting in the first half, and just 21 percent overall (9-for-43) in the game. 

Anna Brummel, Jaylee Long and Emmerson Goodin all had eight points to lead Newaygo. 

They played a really good game, and took us out of a lot of the stuff we wanted to do. … It was just one of those days. The girls played their hearts out,” Newaygo Nate Thomasma said. “Can’t be more proud of them. Just wasn’t our night tonight. Just didn’t make our shots we normally would. Wasn’t from lack of effort, that’s for sure. They just didn’t fall for us.”

Portland’s all-time leading scorer, Ashley Bower, had 20 points to lead the Raiders Friday, while Densmore and Ava Guilford had 12 each.