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Undersized Ithaca scraps out a regional semifinal win over towering Muskegon Western Michigan Christian

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 10, 2020, 9:58 pm

MORLEY — It’s not about the size of the post in the paint, it’s about the size of the fight in the team willing to scrap down there. 

Or something like that.

Outsized by Muskegon Western Michigan Christian at nearly every position, the Ithaca Yellowjackets figured out ways to turn that to their advantage, scrapping their way through to a 44-35 win in Tuesday’s Division 3 regional semifinal.

“We knew that coming in. We call the paint ‘The NBA’: No babies allowed. We played tough inside today. I just couldn’t be more proud of our fight inside. We knew it was going to take five girls to rebound. Our guards had to come down and dig down inside, and we just had the fight tonight,” Ithaca coach Ty Warczinsky said. “I just couldn’t be more proud.”

With the win, the Yellowjackets (22-2) move on to Thursday’s regional championship game at Morley-Stanwood High School, taking on defending D3 champion Pewamo-Westphalia (22-2). The Pirates knocked off Kent City, 40-37, in Tuesday’s earlier regional semifinal.

[For all the regional pairings, CLICK HERE]

So Ithaca’s euphoria over Tuesday’s win won’t last long.

“Tomorrow,” Warczinsky said. “That’s what we’ve done all year long. We’ve enjoyed the crap out of all of our wins, and thought about our losses, and when the sun rises, we always say we rise with it. Yesterday is yesterday, and today’s today. We move on with it.”

In Western Michigan Christian (16-6), the Yellowjackets found an opponent they needed to ‘rise’ up to, as well — at least height-wise.

The Warriors sported four players — junior Greta VanderHeide at 6-foot-3, and sophomores Libby Mast, along with Maddie and Kyla Wiersema at 6-foot — who stretched the measuring tape to 6-feet or better. A fifth, junior Taylor Folkema, wasn’t far behind at 5-11.

That size advantage played out in the first quarter, as WMC got three buckets in the paint from Kyla Wiersema and led 12-10 after eight minutes of play. That’s when the Yellowjackets switched up their defensive pressure, forcing double-digit turnovers in the second quarter, and outscoring WMC 12-3 to lead 22-15 at the half.

“Our plan all night was that we wanted to pressure, then get back. We switched up our press a little bit, and our different press kind of gave them fits a little bit in the second quarter. I think that gave them a little bit of a different look,” Warczinsky said. “We knew if we just let them dribble down, and (get) easy entries (into the post), we were in trouble, so we had to make them uncomfortable. Our goal all night was that if they were going to get any paint touches, they were going to get them a foot outside of where they were comfortable. We did a great job of making it so they couldn’t just catch, turn and score. They had to work a little bit to get it in there. They made some tough shots throughout the night, I’ll give them credit.”

The Yellowjackets weren’t able to match that scoring in the paint, but were nailing shots from the outside, hitting three 3-pointers in the first half, and three more in the third quarter alone. 

“We knew we had to hit some shots from the outside, because we knew we weren’t going to get much inside. We just wanted to shoot the ball confidently, and let it go,” Warczinsky said. “We just knocked down shots tonight like we have been all year.”

Senior point guard Samantha Vermeesch (14 points) had three of the Yellowjackets’ seven 3-pointers on the night, as did freshman Delaney Seaman, who came off the bench to score 13.

“We say big moments bring big players, and she played big tonight. She hit big shots, controlled the ball, played great defensively, too,” Warczinsky said of Seaman. “Everybody will talk about her points but she played just fantastic defense tonight. She was all over the floor.”

Ithaca took a 35-24 lead into the fourth, and held off any semblance of a rally by WMC, despite missing their final four attempts from the free-throw line. 

The Warriors cut it to a five-point game, 38-33, with more than half the fourth quarter to play, but wouldn’t score again until the 1:44 mark, after Ithaca had already pushed the margin back to double digits. Neither team scored again after that layup by Folkema, who had nine points. Kyla Wiersema had 10 to lead WMC.