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Sacred Heart returns to state final by defeating Stephenson

By: Ben Szilagy, March 17, 2016, 10:58 pm



East Lansing – There are some teams that don’t fare well in close games. It seems as if Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart embraces them.

Throughout the season, the Eagles have seen their fair share of close games; 21 to be exact, and Thursday’s Class D semifinal was no different as top-ranked Sacred Heart beat Stephenson 45-38 at the Breslin Center to advance to the state finals against Pittsford on Saturday at 10 a.m.

“It didn’t look pretty,” Sacred Heart coach Damon Brown said. “That’s kind of been our M.O. all year. When you have a team such as ours, you’ll always find a way to get it done.”

Sacred Heart (24-1) had to withstand a hot start by Stephenson’s Kelsey Johnson who had seven points in the first quarter. Freshman Scout Nelson and sophomore Sophie Ruggles kept the Irish in the game at the line as Sacred Heart took advantage of Stephenson double teaming star senior Averi Gamble. 

“We had to grind all season, and not get down on ourselves,” Ruggles said. “We wanted to apply pressure on defense and close out on the blocks. We knew once we could speed them up we could create turnovers and get back into the game.”

Stephenson (23-3) trailed 21-20 at halftime after being held to only six points in the second quarter.

The scoring started to even out as the Irish continued to build its lead in the third and fourth quarters. Nelson and Ruggles each scored 10 points but Gamble made her presence known with 11 second-half points (13 total).

Karley Johnson led Stephenson with 12 points.

“I’ve already won a state championship here, but I want to win another one,” Gamble said. “They were having a hard time stopping us in the post.”

The Eagles did regain the lead, 38-34, midway through the fourth but Megan Nowak quickly answered from the corner to stop the momentum.

“We started to run out of gas at the end of the first half. (Sacred Heart) pushed us really hard all game long,” Stephenson coach Shanna Beal said. “We couldn’t really sub out our players, and their 3-2 zone was really effective.

“Having our girls play here though will give this program a spark. We showed young girls that we can play at a high level, and we’ll continue to grow from this experience.”

Sacred Heart last played for a state championship in 2014 when it defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 56-53.