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No. 2 Hartland finds right match-up with Okemos’ Jasmine Clerkley, limiting Chiefs’ offense in 41-23 win

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, December 17, 2019, 10:56 pm

HARTLAND — It’s all about finding the right fit, the right match-up.

The Hartland Eagles needed a taller defender to match up with Okemos’ star senior forward Jasmine Clerkley, so they inserted 6-foot-1 Lillee Gustafson in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s game.

With plenty of help from the rest of the Hartland defense, Gustafson and company ‘held’ the Bowling Green signee — who had been averaging roughly 22 points and 10 rebounds per game through the Chiefs’ first four games — to 12 points, as the No. 2 Eagles won 41-23 to remain unbeaten. 

“We started her (Gustafson) — the prevailing thought was that if Whitney (Sollom) starts on her, she might get in early foul trouble, and Lillee’s kind of an unsung hero for us. She’d start on just about any other team,” Hartland coach Don Palmer said. “For the most part, if you’re going to tell me she (Clerkley) is going to get 12, I’m going to take that. She’s put up some big numbers this year.”

Tuesday’s matchup was one of two senior bigs — Clerkley and Sollom, the Michigan signee, who both rank among the top 15 players in the state — and who could end up in the conversation for the biggest individual award on the table. 

“Tonight, what an exciting game. You have two Miss Basketball candidates,” first-year Okemos coach Sara Holt said. “I feel like Jaz doesn’t always get the due that she deserves. She’s been averaging a double-double since she was a freshman. To her, maybe that’s motivation — and I think it probably is motivation. She proves herself every single night.”

For good reason, both teams’ defense focused on stopping the other team’s big. Sollom finished with four points and 10 rebounds, while Clerkley had eight of her 12 points in the third quarter.

“Both teams played pretty good defense. We didn’t get a lot easy, and neither did they. I’d like to see us shoot a little bit better, but I think the defense had a lot to do with that,” Palmer said. “They ganged up on Whit, like they should’ve, and we ganged up on the Clerkley kid. … She (Holt) has got that mentality going. They’re just feisty. We couldn’t hit shots, and we couldn’t run plays, and it was just a stalemate for most of the second half.”

The Eagles (3-0) outscored Okemos (2-3, 0-1 CAAC Blue) by a 17-4 margin in the second quarter to lead 26-9 at the half, but the Chiefs pared four points off that deficit with a 10-6 advantage in the third — thanks to eight points from Clerkley in the quarter — to trail 30-19 entering the fourth. 

“If you look at the quarters, we had one bad quarter, and right now, it’s all about putting four quarters together. That’s kind of been the tale of this season, is ‘Can we put four quarters of good basketball together?’ I think we’re close. I think we’ll make a jump over Christmas break, and do some things that help us get there. Right now, if you take away the second quarter, it’s a game,“ Holt said. “Hartland’s a very good team, very well-coached. I thought our persistence tonight — we grew leaps and bounds tonight. The key is taking that, and adding that to our next game, playing with that aggression in our next game. They’re still learning our offense, and we’re still gaining chemistry, in that sense. But they work incredibly hard, and they just don’t have quit in them at all.”

It also helps that the Chiefs have a Division I player to go to on offense, even if every defense knows that’s where the ball’s going to go.

“She’s going to get double-, triple-teamed all season. We’re running things that help her in that situation,” Holt said. “I think she’s willing to do that, but I also think she’s such a willing passer — she’s great at both senses of that. When it’s time for her to go to work, she’ll do that, but she’s really good at getting everyone involved in the game, and that’s the sign of a true leader. And a great basketball player.”

For her first three years on varsity, Clerkley could share the scoring load with Northwestern-bound Laya Hartman, but now she’s gotta carry more of it on her own.

“Yeah, I kind of accept it as a challenge. I also know that I kind of have to score, or we won’t — we’ll succeed, but not like we should. I know that I need to score to help their team,” said the senior, who chuckles when other teams change up their defenses to try to stop her. 

“I think it’s funny, because they don’t realize how good our team is on the perimeter,” Clerkley said. “So, yeah, you can pay attention to me all you want, but we still have people on the perimeter. I just think it’s funny how they switch it up.”

The difference in Tuesday’s game was that the Eagles had other places to go with the ball. 

Nikki Dompierre poured in 17 points to lead all scorers, while Madi Moyer — in whose spot Gustafson started — came off the bench to score 13.

Okemos’ second-leading scorer was sophomore Haley Henion with four points. 

While the Eagles are expected to be a title contender, Okemos is looking to rebound from an 8-14 season in which they won just twice in their final 12 contests. 

“It feels really good, especially since we have a new coach, to just say ‘New senior season, new start,’” admitted Clerkley.

It’s not the only load off her mind at this point. Now that she’s signed with Bowling Green, she no longer has to worry about the recruiting process that started when she was 15, and committed to Michigan State as a sophomore. 

“Yeah, it’s a stress reliever. I’m just glad it’s over, and I found my home for college,” said Clerkley, who felt like she was rejoining a family, committing to play for former Okemos star Robyn Fralick, the second-year BGSU coach. 

Clerkley made the decision to reopen her recruiting process last fall, decommiting from Michigan State to find the right fit for her.

“We’re asking kids to make four- to five-year decisions during formidable years of their life before they can drive a car. So for Jaz to say, ‘I need to find what fits me, and what fits my family,’ I give her nothing but credit. That’s a very adult, head-on-straight decision. So for her to find a home, I couldn’t be happier,” Holt said, noting the familiarity with the Bowling Green staff. “I feel like I’m handing off my kid to another parent. I know that she’ll be supported, and I know that she’s going to do well. … It’s supposed to be about them. I think it took courage, and I think it showed an extreme amount of maturity to step up and say ‘Hey, I’m going to do what fits me best.’”