Experience pays off for No. 2 Freeland, as Falcons pull away from No. 5 Corunna in second half
MT. MORRIS — Been there, done that.
With a team flush with five seniors, four of them that have been four-year players in the successful Freeland program — one that’s gone to the final four once in their four-year careers, and the quarterfinals two other times — coach Tom Zolinski knows that they know what needs to happen, come crunch time in the postseason.
And he’s learned when to stop talking, leave it to his players, and let them handle things.
When a suddenly confident No. 5-ranked Corunna squad came roaring back in the second quarter of Monday’s Division 2 regional semifinals, erasing a 13-point first-quarter deficit to lead 29-25 headed to the break, Zolinski didn’t light up his No. 2-ranked Falcons at halftime.
Nope. He let the players do the talking, and they figured out what they needed to do, storming out in the third quarter, and then rolling to a relatively easy, 60-46 win.
“I didn’t say a whole lot at halftime. … That’s what I’ve learned over the years. Let them decide what they need to do, and they did. Their experience kicked in. And, of course, it always helps when you make shots,” Zolinksi said, admitting it’s more impactful when he doesn’t say much. “Especially with this group. Yeah. Sure, I had my time when I do say a lot. At halftime, I caught myself a couple of times, and said, ‘Just go out and play basketball.’ And we did that, did a good job of it. …
“That was the experience right there in the second half, taking over. The starting five, I guess. Lot of experience there. Three seniors, four years. They’ve been to Breslin, they’ve been to quarterfinals. That was the difference.”
No. 2-ranked Freeland (21-2) advances to Wednesday’s regional final against No. 9-ranked Stanton Central Montcalm (23-0). The Hornets beat Frankenmuth (14-8) by a 56-34 margin in Monday’s second regional semifinal.
The Cavaliers (20-3) finish with one of the most successful seasons in recent memory, something that will register once the emotions of Monday’s loss fade.
“Absolutely. From what I understand, it may be the best, record-wise, that Corunna’s ever had. Can’t take anything away from that,” Ron Birchmeier said. “And our seniors, three districts in a row for them, and we got a league title for the first time, so for this group of kids, it’s one of the best we’ve ever had.”
For all their own experience, the Cavaliers came out a bit anxious early on, and it showed on the scoreboard, as the Falcons jumped out to a big lead in a heartbeat. Lily Beyer had three of the Falcons’s four first-quarter 3-pointers, as they built an 18-5 lead.
But Corunna scored the final seven points of the first quarter, narrowing it to 18-12, then continued that roll in the second quarter, scoring the first seven points, and eventually tying the game up at 25-25 on Ellie Toney’s 3 with 2:20 left before halftime. They’d take a 27-25 lead on a pair of Kate Feldpausch free throws, then pad it on Feldpausch’s back-door cut.
The senior had 11 of her team-high 17 points in the second-quarter rally, heating up quickly.
“Yeah, she is (streaky). And most of our players, they are. They get in a rhythm, and things are easy, when you’re feeling good. And when you’re not feeling as well, it’s harder. … She got her confidence, and did what she’s done all year. That’s the luxury we’ve had, with five players in the starting lineup that, any given night, any one of them can be the leading scorer for us,” Birchmeier said. “We didn’t make an adjustment (after the first). We knew what we wanted to do, and what we had to do was we had to get over some of our own nerves, and the butterflies that we had. That was real obvious to me in the first quarter. It took a while to get us out of that, and once it was gone, you could see there were a whole different ballplayers out there. … I think in the first quarter, we played a little hesitant, but in the second quarter, we played the way we are capable of playing. We just became more confident, and not as nervous.”
The confidence was on the other bench to start the second half, though, as Beyer and Alyssa Argyle combined for a trio of 3-pointers to immediately get the lead back for the Falcons, and they’d never give it up again, pushing the margin to 44-35 headed into the fourth.
“Yeah, we just came out, and they hit three quick shots on us, and we had a couple of turnovers, and from that point, we had a hard time turning it around,” Birchmeier said. “Freeland plays very good defense. They were taking away our passing lanes, and we did not adjust quickly enough to it.”
Closing that loophole was the one thing that Zolinski did specifically address at the half.
“We’ve gotta pick teams up, and take them out of their comfort zone,” the coach said of almost always playing as the shorter team. “I’m not sure if they tired out, or if our energy picked up in the second half, but they were running some nice cuts in the first half, getting some easy looks. And that’s one thing we did talk about taking away.”
Once Corunna peeled a couple of points off the lead in the fourth, Freeland went to a stall, playing keep-away, and forcing the Cavaliers to foul.
“Unfortunately, I had a feeling that was what was going to happen, based on some of the game the film I saw. I don’t like that. That’s where I wish they had the shot clock in high school. But, you know what? You gotta do what it takes to win, and you play within the rules, so you can’t take anything away from what they did,” Birchmeier said, admitting that fouling the Falcons plays right into their hands. “You foul them, they go to the line, and they don’t miss.”
They didn’t on Monday, hitting 14 of 16 free throws in the fourth, and scoring just one field goal as they expanded the lead throughout the quarter, almost exclusively from the line.
“It makes my job easy. But we didn’t hit them the other day. I think the more pressure on them, the better they do … and that goes back to the whole experience thing,” Zolinski said, admitting he gets criticized for the stall tactics. “Most teams can’t do that. We learned to do that, not just this year, but the girls that have been there, learned to do that all along. We’ve always done it. We’ve either been in foul trouble … We gotta do that.”
Kadyn Blanchard was 7-for-8 from the line in the fourth, finishing with a game-high 19 points, while Autumn Kloha had 15, and Beyer 16.
Maddie Birchmeier had 13 for Corunna to go with Feldpausch’s 17.