BASKETBALL: Saline Battles Back at Belleville to Win District Championship
BELLEVILLE - Years from now, oldtimer Hornet fans will retell the tale of how the Saline girls' basketball team defeated Belleville to win the 2023 district championship in epic fashion.
It was a game for the ages.
Spearheaded by junior Kate Stemmer, Saline battled back from a 14-2 deficit to climb back into the contest. Then, in the third, everyone got hot and the Hornets took what seemed like a commanding lead before watching Belleville storm back. Senior Beth Ann Ford tied the game at 40 with 1:53 to play. Senior Taylor Kangas came up with a steal with just a few seconds left to prevent Belleville from scoring at the buzzer. And then Kangas hit a three-pointer and went 4-for-4 (on one-and-ones) from the free throw line.
Saline won, 47-42, to earn its third district championship in four years.
"We literally came back in the district championship. I feel so overjoyed. I'm so proud of my team for sticking with it and constantly and constantly encouraging each other," Kangas said. "We stuck with it. We kept sticking to who we were and it paid off and we won."
The Hornets advanced to the regional tournament that begins Tuesday. Saline (21-3) hosts Salem (18-6) in the regional final at 7 p.m. Dexter (16-8) and Novi (9-15) advanced in the other district.
Saline head coach Leigh Ann Roehm told The Saline Post last November that "she'd fallen in love with this team." Early in the year a team with many question marks was hinting at all the right answers to their coach. Today, with an SEC Red championship and district championship, the girls are no longer hinting.
"This feels amazing. They're such a great group of girls with jovial personalities but competitive instincts. They care about sharing (the ball) and care about each other. And we really became an excellent defensive team and excellent team on the glass," Roehm said. "I couldn't be prouder.
Roehm said she loved how her team maintained composure after the tough start.
"This was a hard-fought battle against a tough Belleville team. We got out to a poor start but these women never held their heads. We came into the huddle after the first quarter and I could just see the look in their eyes that they were focused and ready," Roehm said.
Saline held Belleville to just three-points in the second quarter, allowing the Hornets to climb back into the game.
"I think the big story was our defensive effort. To hold a high scoring opponent like Belleville to 42 (with an extra 4 minutes in OT) says a lot about the way we defended as a team tonight," Roehm said. "We rotated in transition and in the half court and we were ferocious on the glass."
Nothing went right for Saline early in the game as the Tigers dictated the tempo with fast and physical basketball. The Hornets struggled to get to the hoop and the long shots were off the mark. Saline was down 11-2 as the quarter's final seconds fell off the clock. Belleville attempted a hope-and-prayer moon shot that slipped through the mess at the buzzer. Belleville led 14-2.
"We never hung our heads. We said, one possession at a time, we're going to do Saline," Roehm said.
Kangas said she wasn't worried about the score.
"We did everything we could to stay positive, we do everything we can to stay intense. The score is not our biggest (concern). We had so much game left to play. Our goal was to keep playing - make the necessary changes and move on. Don't even look at the score, just place as intense as we can because we had nothing to lose," Kangas said.
And that's what they did.
The comeback started slowly and gained momentum.
Stemmer battled through the bumps to attack the hoop, over and over again, which seemed to soften the Belleville defense. She opened the scoring in the second quarter with a free throw, going 1-for-2.
Kangas further cut the lead, getting a step on her girl and driving in for two to make it 14-5.
After Belleville point from the line, Stemmer took a nifty pass from Kadyn Maida and curled in through the key for two. Saline was down 15-7.
Freshman Keira Roehm followed with the first of her clutch triples. Saline was down 15-10.
Belleville added to their lead before Beth Ann Ford got it back with the first of the three jump shots she made. Saline was down 17-12.
Then Stemmer made the kind of basket that lifts a team. She sprinted past her guard and took a hard hit as she shot the ball into the basket, earning a big cheer from Ford as she helped her up from the floor. She missed the free throw, but Saline was firmly back in the game now, down 17-14, and clearly showing they'd taken the momentum.
Hadley Griffin went 2-for-2 from the line with 35 seconds left in the half to get the Hornets within one at 17-16.
After outscoring Belleville 14-3 in the second quarter, the Hornets dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Tigers, 20-9.
The quarter started with Beth Ann Ford scoring from underneath after a pass from Kangas. Saline lead 18-17.
Stemmer answered a Belleville basket with a three-pointer to make it 21-19.
Roehm followed with her second triple of the game to make it 24-19.
Ford then had back-to-back baskets give Saline a 28-19 lead.
Belleville broke the run and scored a basket and a three-pointer to cut Saline's lead to 28-24.
Maida entered the game and hit a three.
Then she took an inbound pass from Kangas and laid in before the Belleville defense could close on her.
After a Belleville basket, Roehm hit her third three of the game to give Saline the 36-26 lead it took into the fourth quarter.
The Hornets dominated the glass in the third quarter, with Anna Hesse and Ford leading the way.
After Belleville opened the scoring in the fourth quarter, Beth Ann Ford answered for Saline. Hesse rebounded a shot and then the Hornets worked the ball around masterfully, capped by a give-and-go between Hesse and Ford.
And then, things went cold for the Hornets - from everywhere. Saline went almost five minutes without scoring. And the Tigers, with their season on the line, rediscovered their rhythm. The Tigers went on a 12-point run to take a 40-38 lead.
With 1:58 left, down by two, Ford hit another jump shot to tie the game at 40.
This rollercoaster of a championship game was all tied up. Both teams had chances to score but couldn't. Late in the fourth, Belleville passed the ball around the Saline end. The Tigers seemed to be working the clock down to the final seconds - hoping for a last-second shot to win the championship. But with five seconds left, a Hornet (Stemmer perhaps?) got her hand on the ball as a Tiger dribbled across the key. Kangas picked it up and tossed a pass down the floor for a potential game-winning basket - but the ball was knocked away before Stemmer could corral it.
Both teams had a big comeback to punch their ticket into the four-minute, winner-take-all overtime period.
In overtime, Kangas was the hero.
She opened the scoring with a three-pointer 48 seconds into the period.
Saline led 43-32 after Belleville scored 40 seconds later.
With 11.2 seconds left in the quarter, Kangas was fouled and went to the line to shoot one-and-one. She hit both. Saline led 45-42.
Saline had just four fouls at this point and fouled Belleville twice as they rushed the ball up the floor - killing precious seconds.
With six seconds left, the Tigers' inbound pass went out of bounds and Saline got the ball back. The Tigers fouled Kangas - who once again stepped to the free-throw line to shoot one-and-one. Again, she made both to seal the deal.
Saline won 47-42.
Kangas asked what it was like performing under pressure in overtime of the biggest game of the year.
"When the game's in motion and the clock is ticking down, you play who you play. I had to be confident and know who I was and what I was able to do - because I put the work in," Kangas said.
Kangas didn't look nervous at all stepping up to the line with the season in the balance. She quickly dribbled the ball before cooly launching her shots into the net.
"Fake it til you make it," she laughed.
Roehm praised the play of her seniors.
"Taylor Kangas had a huge OT making a three and four straight free throws at the end of the game to ice it," Roehm said. "Both of those were one-and-one situations and she knocked them down confidently with ice in her veins."
Beth Ann Ford led the Hornets in scoring with 12 points.
"Beth Ann Ford did her normal damage at the defensive end but was a dominant force on offense. She wanted the ball and really helped us take advantage of our size advantage," Roehm said.
Anna Hesse was held off the scoreboard but had a monster game on the glass.
"Anna Hesse had a great game as well - 12 points, three steals, three blocks and two assists after being sidelined in foul trouble in the first half. She had to step out and guard perimeter players tonight and did a great job with it," Roehm said.
Junior Kate Stemmer played like a senior.
"Kate played incredibly on the ball defense and played a huge role in slowing down their transition. She attacked the rim with strength and drew fouls. She was able to get to the rim when we were struggling to create. With 5 assists she also distributed the ball super well," Roehm said. "Her heart and toughness are unmatched. I’d go into battle with her any day of the week and twice on Sunday."
Freshman Keira Roehm also played a big part in the Hornet surge.
"She made a three in the second quarter that took the lid off the rim for us. You could see our whole team relax seeing that first 3 go down. Then, she hit 2 threes in the third quarter that were huge momentum builders for us," Roehm said. "She locked down one of their leading scorers on defense and got to the glass for us."
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