In most legends, a protagonist must face a difficult obstacle or overcome a rival
When Saline bested Huron, 59-47, in the MHSAA girls basketball district Wednesday, they crafted an important chapter in what the team hopes is a legendary season.
Saline has an even tougher foe Friday night in Pioneer. The two teams tip off at 6 p.m, with Saline playing to win its first district crown since 2013.
The Hornets Wednesday’s game as the decided underdogs, having gone 0-2 during the regular season against their SEC Red rivals. Saline lost at Huron 48-44 in the first meeting. Their second meeting, at Saline, went to double overtime. Huron won 69-67. Saline was also without two-year varsity junior Erin Reilly and three-year varsity player Kelsey Alexander.
Yet, Saline was not going to be denied in their third meeting.
“It’s really hard, when two teams are evenly matched, to beat a team three times in a row,” coach Leigh Ann Roehm said. “We knew it was going to come down to us making plays. Both teams are very familiar with each other. It just came down to who stepped up and made the plays. I’m so proud of my girls for stepping up and doing that.”
The game had “legend” written all over it. And that’s by design. Coach Roehm and the team have been using the “legendary” motto as in inspiration to do great things.
“I’m a true believer that if you visualize something happening, that it’s going to happen. Going into districts, I said, ‘Ladies, you’re going to be a legend. You need to see yourself a legend. Visualize yourself as a legend,” Roehm said.
At practice, they’d close their eyes and visualize themselves making shots and making defensive stops.
Perhaps nobody embodied that more than sophomore Ella Stemmer – who could be a legendary Hornet basketball player when all is said and done.
Stemmer set the tone for Saline. She opened the scoring, slicing through the defense for a layup. After Huron tied it, Stemmer hit a three-pointer to make it 5-2. Saline went up 6-2 on a basket at the stripe from Steffi Bentley. Huron’s Jadyn Smith hit a three-pointer and then Sienna Smith scored to give Huron a 7-6 lead.
Stemmer then hit another long jump shot to make it 8-7 Saline with 1:57 left in the quarter.
Nicole Sweetland scored a layup while getting fouled and Maddy Welch hit a three pointer to make it 13-7. After a Huron basket, Stemmer closed the quarter with a three-pointer. Saline led 16-10.
“I just knew I had to really bring it for my team and be a really good example out there,” Stemmer said, of her hot start.
Roehm said Stemmer’s hot start changed the complexion of the game.
“It makes everyone else calm. When she gets off to a hot start then they start double-teaming her. And then others get more open shots and more open looks and it fuels the team going forward,” Roehm said.
Huron closed the gap early in the second, with a three from Seina Smith and two free throws from Jadyn Smith.
But Saline’s shooting was practically legendary.
Sweetland made a basket and then Liz Sekerak and Sophie Gasparovic drained three-pointers for a 24-15 lead.
Jadyn Smith hit another three to make it 24-18. Amera Boyd answered with a steal and layup. Stemmer and Bentley both had baskets to make it 30-18.
Jadyn Smith hit another three and Kaiden Glenn made a free throw to make it 30-22. Saline took its eight-point lead into halftime.
Bentley opened the third quarter with a strong drive and layup to make it a 10-point game. From there, Saline ran into some trouble. Turnovers led to a basket and another point from the free throw line.
After a three-pointer from Sweetland, Huron closed the gap with a three from Jadyn Smith and two points from Khady Ba. It was a five point-game.
Stemmer added one from the stripe and Huron responded with a layup from Glenn.
Gasparovic hit her second three-pointer of the game to make it 39-32. Huron closed the gap with two free throws from Glenn and a put back by Ba.
Sweetland put back a rebound to give Saline a 41-35 lead. Siena Smith scored t make it 41-37 heading into the fourth.
Huron opened the quarter with a free throw, closing Saline’s gap to just two points.
It was the closest the River Rats would get.
Roehm was pleased by the way the Hornets held off the River Rats’ charge.
“We’ve been tested the whole season. Our conference is so tough. We’ve learned from those situations and applied it (tonight). Every time we made a run, we stayed poised. We didn’t look frantic. We didn’t look worried,” Roehm said. “We were going to get a stop. We were going to get a rebound. We were going to make a shot.
The Hornets wasted a couple of possessions, with one play going out of bounds and a missed shot, before Stemmer took a pass from Bentley and righted the ship.
Sweetland followed with a basket from the free throw line. Sekerak scored on a give-and-go with Bentley tok make it 46-38.
Jadyn Smith hit another three to close the game. Bentley answered with a layup.
Down 48-41, the River Rats resorted to fouls to stop the clock and gain possession. But Welch, Sweetland and Sekerak all went two-for-two on one-and-ones.
After another Huron basket, Stemmer and Boyd both went two-for-two from the line. Saline led 58-43.
The Hornets, down two of their best defensive players in Alexander and Reilly, were shutting down the River Rats.
“We talked about it before the game. Anyone who stepped on the floor needed to channel the beast of Erin and the energy of Kelsey. I really feel like they did that,” Roehm said. “Erin and Kelsey are really important pieces to our program and I’m looking to them getting healthy and coming back to us.”
One of the girls who embodied that spirt was Liz Sekerak, who had six steals on the night – most of them at important junctions in the game.
“Liz has a toughness and grit about her. She’s just going to dig in and not let you get anything,” Roehm said. “She plays with a fire in her belly. She’s got a fire that just drives her and it’s inspiring to watch.”
The winner of Friday’s district will play South Lyon East or Brighton in the Region 5 district at Skyline, starting March 11.
Pioneer opened a then-unbeaten Saline team’s eyes with a 65-51 victory on Jan. 15. Saline closed the gap at home, losing 50-47.
Coach Roehm said the team will need to find another gear to have success Friday.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to have to step up to the plate. We have to improve from tonight. There’s no way the way we played tonight gets it done in the district finals,” Roehm said.
The Saline Post 3 Stars
- Ella Stemmer – Saline led from beginning to end – because Stemmer set the tone with 10 first-quarter points. She also had six rebounds and two assists.
- Nicole Sweetland – Sweetland scored 12 points and had five rebounds and two assists. Her best performance came in the third, when she had five points to help Saline thwart Huron’s comeback attempt.
Liz Sekerak – There were a lot of Hornets worthy of mention, including Steffi Bentley, Maddy Welch, Amera Boyd and Sophie Gasparovic. But Sekerak shut down Huron’s Reeya Patel and contributed seven points and five steals.