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No. 14 Carman-Ainsworth holds off No. 16 Midland Dow to win first SVL title in 5 tries

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 29, 2020, 12:52 am

AUBURN — With the way Midland Dow can shoot, Flint Carman-Ainsworth coach Lance Belill almost overestimated his team’s ability to hold the Chargers off defensively.

With his Cavaliers leading by double-digits past the midway point of the fourth quarter of the Saginaw Valley League championship game at Bay City Western, Belill felt comfortable that the Cavs could finally bring home the trophy.

They did, but it was closer than he’d have liked. 

Jada Garner’s three-point-play opportunity with less than a second left cut the deficit to just two points, forcing her to intentionally miss on the free throw in the hopes of getting a tip-in bucket to tie it, but the Cavaliers corralled the rebound — and the title.

“I told the girls, I think there was two-and-a-half minutes left, and I said ‘Ladies, we’re up 45-35. We don’t need to score again, and we’re going to win the game.’ And there was like 30 seconds left, and I was like, ‘Woah, we need to make some free throws.’ They closed the gap pretty quick,” said Belill, whose team lost to Dow in last year’s title game, albeit with a very different lineup.

“They are vastly different. They’ve got Molly Davis up at Central (Michigan), and Maizie (Taylor) at Northwood, but MAN they shoot. I don’t know what Kyle (Theisen, the Dow coach) does with them, but I think I’m going to hire him to come down and give a little clinic, or something.

“Yeah, they can shoot. I knew they were going to be tough, because their JV team was sooo good last year. I think they beat our JV team by like 40, twice. They lose a couple players like that, but they just flush them through.”

Carman Ainsworth (16-4, 8-0 SVL Blue) has been in the SVL title game each of the four years they’ve held the contest, losing twice to Saginaw Heritage, and twice to the Chargers.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” said Illinois-bound Cavaliers senior Aaliyah McQueen. “It’s not too big, because we’re looking for bigger things, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’re excited for it.”

Friday’s loss for Midland Dow (17-3, 7-1 SVL Red) snapped a 13-game win streak that helped the Chargers win a North Division that maybe many thought they might not, given their losses to graduation. 

“We were very proud to accomplish winning the North title. That was not something that a lot of people gave us a chance to do, and that was a big source of pride for us, for the girls. So for us to then — against a team that, I think, athletically, very much overmatches us — to come back from down 10, to have a shot to tie the game at the end … We give ourselves a chance. We had a great opportunity, and I just told the girls, ‘Be proud of the way we played,’’ Theisen said. 

“I thought defensively we played well. We’re not shooting well, but I thought defensively we played a good game. In the end, they made one more shot than we did.”

Carman-Ainsworth led 18-14 at the half and 30-25 entering the fourth, but got the lead up to 38-28 — thanks in part to three 3-pointers by McQueen — before the Chargers began to respond. 

“It was a bit of a struggle, mentally, at the beginning. I had a few fouls, so I had to sit. … It was a little hard, but I couldn’t be no baby about it. I just had to man it up, and buck through it. It happens to everybody,” said McQueen, who sat almost the entire second quarter after picking up her second foul on a charge, leaving her scoreless in the first half for the first time in her memory. “I don’t know (the last time). I got me some buckets in, but most importantly, I got my teammates the ball. … I kind of got that (feeling), like ‘It’s go time.’ Once you get in there, you’ve gotta go. You gotta do something. I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything.”

Belill knew it wouldn’t sit well with his star senior, but he also watched his team go on an offensive spurt when she left the floor.

“I haven’t sat our girls in the second quarter like that with two fouls the whole season, and they’ve done a really good job of not picking up their third. But when she went out, we went on an 8-0 run, so when we’ve got girls that are playing, there’s no reason to put her back in and risk that. Credit to her, though, she kept her head up, and played. She gave us some real good minutes in the second half,” Belill said. “I pulled her back out even at the end of the third quarter, with three fouls, and she wasn’t happy, but I just said ‘Listen, we talk about giving 100 percent, mentally and physically.’ I said, ‘This is a mental moment where this is the right decision. There’s no reason to get a fourth foul here.’ She bought into that, and came back, and we got the job done as a team.”

Dow hit three 3-pointers in the fourth to all but erase that deficit, then got a bucket down low from Alexa Kolnitys with 1:44 left to cut it to five, and a steal and a layup from the sophomore to make it 45-42 with 49.5 seconds left. 

“Well, not tonight. We just had an off night shooting. We don’t usually do that. I was a little surprised. But then you saw in the fourth quarter, we started to hit shots. We’re going to live and die by the 3, and tonight in the first half, we died by it,” Theisen said. “We’re a lot better shooting team than we showed tonight, and sometimes that happens. But it’s part of being a high school basketball team, and working through mistakes, and getting better.”

Dow would miss a potential game-tying 3 with 27 seconds left, and the Cavaliers padded the lead to four points when Arie Lewis got an offensive rebound after a missed front end of a one-and-one, and split at the line herself, making it 46-42 with 7.5 seconds left. 

That was just enough time for Garner — who had 20 to lead all scorers — to get to the hoop and score while being fouled with 0.6 seconds left. That cut it to 46-44, but the Cavaliers didn’t let Dow get the tip-in it needed to tie it up.

Garner was the MVP of the SVL’s northern division this year, after being a role player for her first two seasons. 

“Jada was an honorable mention last year. She didn’t even make second team in the North. And now she’s MVP. It’s unbelievable. For her to play off the ball for two years, do your role, hit open shots when you get them, to now, you’re going to bring the ball up every time, and you’re going to have to create shots for everybody, and you’re going to have to score, so you’re going to have to give the ball up, and get it back and score for us, and you’re going to have to defend one of their best players — and she did all of it. Just like it was her job for the last two years,” Theisen said. “She’s the MVP of the league, but she’s undeniably our MVP. She is our glue that holds everything together, that allows use to play the way we want. We can play fast, we can still work the shots. She’s the one that allows us to get the open 3s, just like Molly and Maizie used to. Her game allowed us to still play the way we want to play. She’s grown so much, and it’s pretty cool to see.”

McQueen finished with 12 points for the Cavaliers, while Lewis had 10, and Armoni Strozier had nine off the bench. 

After an 11-0 start, Carman-Ainsworth came into Friday’s game 4-4 in its last eight, and 2-3 in its last five. Three of the four regular-season losses for the Cavaliers came against teams ranked in the top five — Detroit Renaissance, Detroit Edison and East Lansing — while the other was against a Southfield A&T squad that went to the Division 1 championship game a year ago, and began the season ranked in the top 25. 

So Friday’s win allowed them to go into the postseason with a bit of momentum. 

“It’s got me a little excited. I’m ready for Monday to hurry up. It’s just firing us up for the next level,” McQueen said, admitting there are high possibilities for the team. “Winning states. This team is capable of that, as long as we play together like we did tonight, we’re going to make it.”