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Pewamo-Westphalia gets the stop it needs at the end, holding off Kent City in the postseason for a third straight season

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 10, 2020, 10:53 pm

MORLEY — In a classic game that was crying out to have a buzzer beater, there were three, and none of them when it counted most.

Pewamo-Westphalia’s defense prevented Kent City from getting the game-tying bucket in the final seconds of Tuesday’s Division 3 regional semifinal, closing out a 40-37 win — allowing the defending state champs to continue with their title defense, and end the Eagles’ hopes for a third straight postseason. 

“What a girls basketball game. I told coach Carlson, maybe one of the best rivalries in the state, if the not the best. Two amazing teams — 40-37, but there were some really good individual offensive plays tonight,” Pirates head coach Steve Eklund said. “We’re P-W, so you know it’s going to come down to a defensive stand at the end. I’m really proud of the girls.”

Trailing by three the final 30 seconds, the Eagles (22-2) thought they had a great chance to get a game-tying shot. They nearly got one from junior all-stater Kenzie Bowers, who raised up to take it, but readjusted in mid-air when she realized it was about to be blocked by P-W’s Miss Basketball candidate Hannah Spitzley.

Instead, she passed it off, and — after a teammate’s miss — the Pirates (22-2) corralled the defensive rebound, and ran out the clock when the inexperienced Eagles didn’t immediately foul. 

“That was a great decision (by Kenzie Bowers) not to take that one, yes. Looking back, I wish I’d taken a timeout with a few seconds left. I thought we had a couple of shots, and we didn’t take them. I probably should’ve used that last timeout. I’ll be kicking myself for another year here,” Kent City coach Scott Carlson said, acknowledging the error in not fouling. “We had a little mental mistake there. That’s going to happen. We don’t have too many close games, especially with a team ahead, holding the ball on us.”

It was a game that — like their postseason meetings the last two seasons — was destined to go down to the wire. 

They were ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the final Associated Press poll, and among the top handful of teams in the two STATE CHAMPS! rankings all season long. Two years ago, they met in the Class C quarterfinals, with P-W winning 45-30, before falling to eventual champion Detroit Edison in the semis. Last year, the Pirates won, 35-33, in the D3 regional semis on Kent City’s home floor, before going on to win their program’s first state title. 

“It was almost a little bit karma: Last year, they couldn’t make a free throw at the end, and this year, we couldn’t make a free throw at the end. Fortunately — but playing with the lead sure helps,” Eklund said. “We get to go to practice tomorrow. We spent so much time preparing for Kent City, we’ve gotta refocus. We have 24 hours to refocus, get prepared.”

Pewamo-Westphalia will take on Ithaca in Thursday’s regional championship game. The Yellowjackets beat Muskegon Western Michigan Christian 44-35 in Tuesday’s nightcap.

[For all the regional pairings, CLICK HERE]

Each team managed to beat the buzzer earlier in Tuesday’s game.

Jenna Harrison scored on an inbounds play to beat the first-quarter buzzer, giving Kent City a 13-10 lead after a quarter. Kenzie Bowers scored on an off-balance, leaning, falling hook shot with 3.9 seconds left to beat the halftime buzzer — but there was still enough time for the Pirates to get a good shot.

Ellie Droste, who’d pinned the ball against Bowers’ knee in the post, before the Kent City guard wrestled it away, got up off the ground, and sprinted to midcourt where she hit a buzzer-beating heave to give P-W a 24-22 lead at the break.

“I’m disappointed that we gave up the 3-pointer at the half, and it ends up being a three-point game,” Carlson said. “I’m just disappointed that we didn’t play ‘D,’ and gave that up, yes. Their crowd counted down early, and we scored. They went ‘3, 2, 1 …’ when there was about four seconds left and my girls thought it was halftime. They (the Pirates) thought it was halftime. It took them a second to  realize there was time left, and get the ball in.”

Kenzie Bowers managed to get back enough to contest the shot, but not prevent it.

“I was thinking there was less time. I should’ve been up — it wasn’t my girl, but I should’ve been up anyways. That shot right there took a lot away from us,” the junior said. “I almost wanted to say ‘Good shot.’ I almost wanted to tell her. I actually even hit her hand a little bit, so I was like ‘Wow, that still went in …’ It was a great shot. It affects us a lot. We don’t want that to go in, obviously.”

The Pirates maintained that three-point advantage into the fourth, leading 32-29 after three quarters, then scored the first five points of the fourth. Emily Nurenberg’s 3-pointer with 5:37 left made it 37-29, then she scored again on a back-door cut with 2:05 left, making it 39-32. 

Kenzie Bowers hit a 3-pointer with 3:35 left to make it a five-point game, 37-32, then answered Nurenberg’s layup with a 3-pointer with 1:50 left to make it 39-35. 

Her freshman sister, Lexie Bowers, scored on a drive to the bucket with 53 seconds left to make it a one-possession game at 40-37. 

After the Pirates missed the front end of a one-and-one with 41.2 seconds left, the Eagles had enough time to set up for a game-tying shot. 

Kenzie Bowers started into her shooting motion with more than 10 seconds left, then adjusted mid-air to pass the ball off. 

“I wanted it. I mean, I wanted to get it off. But I couldn’t quite get it off. The one time, I almost tried, but I got it to my sister, and I wanted it back. I was like ‘Give it to me! Give it to me!’” Bowers said. “I went up thinking ‘I’m going to shoot this shot,’ and she was a little closer than I thought she was, and I was like ‘Oh, I’m not getting this shot off,’ so I had to pass it somewhere.”

It was Spitzley’s ability to close that forced the adjustment — and may have saved the game. Minus that potential game-tying shot, Kenzie Bowers finished with 21 points, almost all of them with one of the state’s best defenders — Spitzley — locked on her like glue

“Length is great. But those two kids have gone after each other for three years on the AAU floor, and here in the tournament. It’s a really good rivalry. It’s almost fun to watch, but it’s tough as a coach,” Eklund said. “We didn’t do a good job helping Hannah out all night. You can guard one-on-one, but all them screens … We did a really poor job, and we tried to adjust at halftime. And we still didn’t do a great job. That’s something we’re going to have to clean up.”

The Eagles will have another offseason to wonder what might have been.

But it will likely be motivation for what was a young team this season.

“I think it’s upsetting, just as normal, because we were right there. We wanted it badly again. We knew we had another chance this year, and we knew we were going to play another good game with them. Just didn’t end up the way we wanted it, and this is going to make us work harder for it next year,” Kenzie Bowers said. “It was the same thing last year. I knew we were only losing a little bit, and gaining even more, coming into this year. It’s the same thing next year: We’re gaining even more good players, and we’ll have more experience. I think it’s going to help a lot, and I’m really, really exited to see what happens next year.”

Carlson agreed.

“You know, I like that they won the state championship last year, because we did everything but beat them, everything but the last 20 seconds or so of the game. To lose four of our top six players, and to come back and put up the type of fight that we did, and the game we had — they still had basically their starting four or five back — I was proud of my girls. And it showed, where we went from, from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. That part was great,” the coach said.

“You can go through the ‘What ifs?,’ but I’m proud of my girls. They didn’t back down. And we will be back next year. We’ll start on that very soon. … We lose one starter, and our first player off the bench is a freshman. I think we’ll be ready.”