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Heritage relies on defense, experience to defeat Grosse Pointe North, 46-28, in a Class A semifinal

By: Tom Markowski, March 16, 2018, 2:32 pm

Grand Rapids – The bus the Grosse Pointe North team took to Grand Rapids on Thursday night had a flat tire on I-696. The players and coaches made it safely to their destination but there was a bit of a delay.

Saginaw Heritage finished what that tire on that bus started. The Hawks completely took the air out of North’s bid for a state title with a 46-28 victory in a Class A semifinal on Friday at Van Noord Arena on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

It’s going to take a supreme effort by East Lansing to keep Heritage from winning the school’s second state title.

Heritage played with confidence and poise in Friday’s Class A semifinal and the Hawks displayed a smothering defense in defeating North and its star player, Julia Ayrault.

Heritage, ranked No. 2, advances to Saturday’s 12:15 p.m. final against East Lansing (26-0), a 60-52 winner over Wayne Memorial in the second semifinal.

Heritage won its first title (Class A) in 2002, a season after it lost in the final. Its lone loss this season was to Detroit Edison, which will play for the Class C title on Saturday, 57-55, in double overtime on Feb. 20.

Ayrault, a 6-2 junior and considered a strong candidate for the Miss Basketball award next season, was held to 13 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks.

When Heritage coach Vonnie DeLong was asked what the team’s strategy was to defend Ayrault, DeLong said two words, Mo Joiner. Joiner is a junior who likely will be a candidate for 2019 Miss Basketball.

“Mo did a great job defensively,” DeLong said. “We have a veteran group, juniors and seniors, (who) understand what it takes. They weren’t pleased with the way we finished the season recently.

“Coming into the season they understood we had a pretty good team. I haven’t had a team that practices the way this team does.”  

Heritage dominated the game on the defensive end. The Hawks forced 14 turnovers in the first half, nine in the second quarter. They were aggressive and were active in getting their hands on passes in the passing lanes.

“That was the best defensive team I’ve seen all year,” North coach Gary Bennett said. “Defensively, I thought we did a good job in the first half.”

North (20-6) was a surprise entrant into this round. The Norsemen were unranked and, with just one senior, were considered a year away from seriously competing for a state title.

North stayed close to the Hawks until Heritage opened up the second half with a 7-0 run to take a 29-13 lead after a Shine Strickland-Gills basket with 5:32 left in the third.

“Actually, this whole season has been a gift for us,” Bennett said. “I don’t think we were a good basketball team at the beginning. Somewhere in the middle of January, we became a good team. We have a superstar. The role players needed the superstar and the superstar needed the role players.

“For us, it was great to be here. For me, we had a chance to show what Grosse Pointe North is like.”

Mallory McCartney led Heritage with 13 points, Strickland-Gills had 12 and Joiner nine. Statistically, an important category was steals. Strickland-Gills had four and Joiner and Jessica Bicknell each had three. North had two.

Joiner most often defends the other team’s top player and she takes great pride in that role.

“I need to look at game film,” Joiner said. “I didn’t have my best game today but if I could stay with Julia, I could help my team in that way.

“We work on staying in front of people. When you do that, you can be pretty effective.”