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Third-quarter rally pushes Saline past Ann Arbor Huron for first district title since 2013

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 6, 2020, 10:52 pm

YPSILANTI — Down by nine points in the third quarter, the Saline Hornets needed to take a deep breath, and relax.

It worked, as they ripped off a 12-0 run to take the lead, but then the Hornets needed to do the same thing again in the final moments of Friday’s Division 1 district title game, hitting just enough of their free throws in the final 71 seconds to close out a 50-44 win over SEC Red champion Ann Arbor Huron. 

“It’s incredible,” said junior Ella Stemmer, who scored nine of her 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of critical 3-pointers to keep the Hornets ahead. “We’ve been pursuing this for so long. We knew coming in here, we weren’t going to leave her without a championship. It’s great.”

The district title is Saline’s first since 2013, and the win gives the Hornets 21 on the season, matching the school record for wins.

“It feels amazing for these incredible young women. That’s what it feels like. This victory is something that they put their blood, sweat, tears — and relationships — on the line for,” Saline coach Leigh Ann Roehm said. “It feels like happiness and joy for the most wonderful kids in the world.”

With the win, Saline (21-2) advances to next week’s regional at Dexter, where they’ll face KLAA East champion Wayne Memorial (17-4) at 5:30 p.m. Brighton (20-3) and Plymouth (14-8) will face off at 7 p.m. in the other regional semifinal.

“We’re going to enjoy the moment here, and treasure this, but we have tough competition in our region,” Roehm said. “We’re going to get right back to work, preparing for whoever we have to face, because whoever it is, it’s a tough team.”

It’s a trip Saline has been building toward for a while. 

The Hornets lost by two, 28-26, to Pioneer in last year’s district championship game, but weren’t going to let that happen again. 

“It just shows how much confidence they have in each other, and in themselves. It’s also not just an accident that it happened. It’s a mark of a lot of work, that they’ve put in, all the way from the end of last season, the bitter taste they felt in their mouth, all the way until now. It wasn’t an accident,” said Roehm, who called a timeout when the River Rats (19-4) pushed their lead to nine, 29-20, less than three minutes into the second half. 

“It was about one possession at a time, and about us just breathing, and visualizing what we needed to do. We also talked about how, defensively, we needed to become impassioned. We were playing tough, but I felt like there was a lack of passion behind every single one of our movements. They came out and they really did that. Every rotation was faster. Every pursuit of the ball was greater, and I think that was the difference after that timeout.”

Senior Steffi Bentley scored 10 of her 17 points in the third quarter, eight of them in the Hornets’ run to erase the Huron lead.

“She was incredible. And they were tough shots, too. They were contested. They were strong, powerful moves,” Roehm said. “You can’t be fooled by Steffi’s slender build. She’s a tough player: She’s going to grab the ball and finishes so strong around the rim. I feel like she’s an underrated player in the state, man. That kid, I’d go to battle with, any day.”

That was the stretch that left Huron coach Scott Hunter scratching his head, too.

“I asked them to win the first three minutes of the second half, and they did that. Then they made a run, and we just couldn’t get over the hump. We made a run in the fourth quarter, but just a few rebounds we couldn’t secure,” Hunter said. “I thought No. 5 (Bentley), she hurt us on the interior. We gave up too many easy baskets. They kind of just slowly started getting those good shots on the interior. We didn’t do a good job adjusting to that.”

Liz Sekerak took over where Bentley left off, hitting a 3-pointer with 1:22 left in the third to tie it at 29-29, then nailing the go-ahead 3 with 5.4 seconds left in the quarter to give the Hornets a 34-31 lead going to the fourth. 

“We used our strengths against their defense. We made sure to get the ball inside, and move it back out, just kind of stretch out the defense. That way, if Steffi did have a shot, she took it. Otherwise, we’d be able to attack after their defense had shifted,” Stemmer said. “Just having the heart to play, but staying poised, making sure that we were making calm decisions. We came out super energetic, but we needed to calm it down, make the extra pass. Just be there for each other. I think that made the difference.”

Stemmer hit a 3-pointer with 6:03 to play to give the Hornets a six-point lead, 37-31, then nailed another one with 3:30 left to make it 43-38 after the River Rats had cut it to two.

The latter one came after a scrum for the rebound under the basket, a loose ball that Bentley plucked off the floor, and kicked out to Stemmer at the top of the key.

“If you get Ella Stemmer a wide-open look, that thing’s going down. They didn’t give her many wide-open looks during the game. Give credit to them. They played really tough D the whole entire game. That’s kind of when those open looks happen, at the end of a scrum, at the end of a loose ball, and Steffi had the presence of mind to find the open person,” Roehm said. “They’ve had kind of a sixth sense about each other, all year. There’s a connection between those two. And they find each other in the right spots.”

Starting with a one-and-one opportunity by Stemmer with 1:11 left, the Hornets would hit 7 of 10 free throws in the final 71 seconds to seal up the win. 

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but just take a deep breath before you get to the line, because it’s all mental,” Stemmer said. “Just pretend you’re at the Rec Center, which is what I do, and just knock them down.”

Mckenzie Maciejewski hit a 3-pointer for Huron with 25.6 left to cut the deficit to three, 47-44, but Huron couldn’t get the last bucket it needed to get any closer. 

Alexa Lyon led Huron with 16 points, while Reeya Patel and Sienna Smith had six each.

Huron graduates nine seniors from this year’s squad.

“Great season. Don’t hang your head. A great group of girls, great GPA, great families. Winning in the game of life is the most important game, and their best years are ahead of them. I’m very proud of this group,” Hunter said. “I thought we had a good season. I thought we played hard, thought we competed throughout the season. I thought we got some good wins early against teams that maybe didn’t expect us to be that tough. I thought we hung in there during the conference. … From the end of last season, spring workouts, summer, fall — they gradually all seemed to buy in and start working hard. It’s a process. I was the fourth coach in four years, and I think as time went on, they just started to settle in. … We didn’t finish out the way we wanted to, but this group of girls — I wouldn’t want to coach anybody else. It was a great season, and I had a great time with it.”