Nicole Sweetland’s basket with 2:01 to play gave Saline a 26-23 lead over Pioneer in the district championship game, but Pioneer, playing at home, came back to win 28-26.
The heartbreaking loss ended a strong season for Saline – which finished with a 15-7 record.
Despite the loss, coach Leigh Ann Roehm said it was a great season for the Hornets.
“I saw the title of your article that said ‘it could be’ a legendary season. I just want to say, right now, this was a legendary season,” Roehm said. “This team set the bar a level higher for this program. The raised our expectations.”
Roehm credited her senior leadership.
“We have six kids who worked their whole lives to start building our program to this point. These kids have set a different tone, offensive and defensively,” Roehm said. “They are legends.”
It was the final game for Kelsey Alexander, Maddy Welch, Nicole Sweetland, Leeya Lawson, Fiona Morcom and Emily Woodman.
The game was a defensive struggle – by Saline’s design. With the district trophy on the line, these SEC Red rivals were meeting for the third time this season, so physical play was expected. But with the officials swallowing their whistles most of the game, calling just 19 fouls in a game that saw only 12 free throw attempts, the battle was fierce.
“We came out and executed exactly what we had to do. We took their best shooters out of positions they like to score from and we did a great job on the glass,” Roehm said. “Before the districts, I challenged the kids and said ‘Listen, our toughness has to be the thing. We have to be tough.’ And, man, were they tough today. I was so proud of the grit and fight they had. They didn’t back down. They didn’t get emotional. They didn’t complain. They just went in there and battled.”
Ella Stemmer led Saline with eight points. Nicole Sweetland scored seven points. Kelsey Alexander (four points), Steffi Bentley (four points) and Amera Boyd (three points) also scored for Saline.
For much of the night, it felt like a six-point lead might be insurmountable.
Pioneer drew first blood nearly three minutes into the game on a basket by Whitney Gallagher (12 points). Saline tied it on a layup by Steffi Bentley. Pioneer went up 6-2 on baskets by Asaria Turman and Lauren DeWolf. Saline made it 6-4 before the end of the quarter when Alexander inbounded to Stemmer for the layup.
Pioneer built on its lead in the second quarter. Mya Hicks opened the scoring. Saline got a point back with Boyd going 1-for-2 at the line. Felicia Stewart then made two free throws and basket to give Pioneer a 12-5 lead 2:29 into the quarter. But the Hornets locked down on defense. Bentley took an inbound pass from Alexander and scored with 3:12 to play. After another defensive stop, Nicole Sweetland, from the top of the key, launched a long-three thanked banked off the glass and in with 1:45 to play. Saline was down 12-10 – a score that held until halftime.
Stemmer tied the game in the opening minute of the third quarter, spinning through the lane and scoring. But the Pioneers responded with three straight baskets from Corrine Burgard, Gallagher and Turman. Saline was down 18-12 when Alexander drained a long jump shot from the corner. Ella Stemmer then made two free throws to make it a two point game heading into the third.
Boyd opened the third quarter with a layup to tie the game. With 6:36 to play, Stemmer went 2-for-2 from the line to give Saline a 20-18 lead – it’s first lead of the contest.
But the Pioneers bounced back. Gallagher went 1-for-2 from the line twice and then hit a three-pointer to give Pioneer a 23-20 advantage with 3:57 to play.
Sweetland answered with a powerful drive through the lane and two points. Moments later, Saline took the lead when Alexander rebounded a shot and put it back with a great shot with her back to the basket.
With 2:01 to play, Sweetland gave Saline a three point lead with a fall-away one-handed jump shot.
Leading 26-23, Saline got the defensive stop it wanted – but then turned the ball over. Gallagher hit a three-pointer from the corner, tying the game.
Saline then had a chance to take the lead again. The ball was inbounded to Boyd, who used her sprinter’s speed to beat everyone to the hoop. But her shot rimmed out. Liz Sekerak rebounded the ball, but was fouled, undetected by the officials, and couldn’t get a clean shot away. Pioneer grabbed the loose ball and DeWolf went all the way down the floor and scored.
Down two, with seven seconds to play, Saline had another chance. Boyd was fouled with 1.7 seconds left to play. She didn’t hit the first shot. There was mayhem as both teams, believing it was a one-on-one situation, battled for the rebounds. Saline rebounded the ball three times and put up shots that didn’t fall in the longest 1.7 seconds in basketball history. It was all for naught, as officials ruled it wasn’t a one-and-one situation.
Boyd’s second shot went off the rim and Pioneer rebounded the ball to seal the victory.
The Hornets are losing an important senior class that includes two or three starters in Sweetland, Welch and Alexander. But they have a lot of young talent coming back in Stemmer, Sekerak, Boyd, Bentley, Reilly, Emily Wilczynski and Sophie Gasparovic, plus the JV call ups. And those talented underclassmen will have important experience under their belts.
Roehm talked to the underclassmen after the game.
“These seniors have paved the road for you. They’ve set us on a course of success, a course of excellence, and we have to rise to the occasion. We can’t say, ‘Oh, we’ve had this great season’ and stop. It’s time to grow. It’s time to build. It’s time to say ‘We’ve learned our lesson in the district championship and next year, we’re going to have what it takes to get it done.’”
The Saline Post 3 Stars
- Kelsey Alexander – Scored only four points – but they were both huge baskets. Played with energy and grit all over the court – especially for someone coming off a bout of the flu.
- Ella Stemmer – Shots didn’t fall for her like they did Wednesday. But she still fearlessly drove the lane, no matter how much punishment Pioneer dished out.
- Nicole Sweetland – The senior had seven points in her final game. A big three to give Saline life before halftime and then two baskets in the fourth quarter.