Forest Park coaches and players manage a game smile after receiving the runner-up trophy following the state Class D championship game at the Breslin Center March 15.
EAST LANSING—Before long, Forest Park’s girls will be thinking about the first 861 minutes of their 2013-14 basketball season and not on the final three minutes.
But not right away.
The Lady Trojans came oh so close to completing an undefeated season and winning the Class D girls state championship at the Breslin Center here March 15.
But then the basketball gods stepped in and said no. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy ran off 12 straight points in the final minutes to steal away a 56-53 win and the state title.
It was hard to watch. It was even harder to believe.
Forest Park completes its greatest season ever with a 26-1 record, a bulging trophy case, a star player heading to Michigan State, plenty of great memories … and one not-so-great one at the very end.
Those first 861 minutes were pretty awesome, after all.
After winning their district and regional titles, the Lady Trojans defeated previously unbeaten Posen 69-56 on March 11 at the state quarterfinal game in Sault Ste. Marie. From there, they advanced to the semifinals here, defeating Athens 49-33 on March 13.
That earned them the right to face Sacred Heart in the state finals—the first time Forest Park has played in a state championship game since Jerry Hautala coached the Trojans to the finals back in the fall of 1995. (FP Assistant Coach Jackie Giuliani played on that team.)
• The girls’ five-day odyssey started with a Tuesday morning pep rally and the bus ride to the Soo for a date with the only other unbeaten team left in Class D: Posen.
After a back-and-forth first quarter, the teams went to three-ball in the second. Lexi Gussert put the Trojans ahead with her three. Posen’s Ashley Meyers’ two triples later tied it. Baskets by FP’s Kendra Campbell and Sam Nylund built up a 33-26 halftime lead.
A turning point came early in the second half when Campbell was called for her third foul while guarding Posen’s star, Korynn Hinska—Hinska’s free throws made it a one-point game.
But FP Coach Jeff Syrjanen’s substitute got to the scorer’s desk too late, so Campbell stayed in the game—and hit a two, a three and a pair of free throws in the next few minutes.
Posen rallied on baskets by Hinska and Austin Sharpe. Meyers’ fourth three put Posen ahead 47-46 after three. But Gussert got a three of her own, Nylund scored again, and from there it was free throws. FP made eight straight at the line (six by Lexi) and baskets by Nylund and Gussert built up a 63-50 lead with 1:50 left.
Lexi led FP with 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Campbell scored 18 before fouling out, and Nylund had nine plus eight boards. Maria Stankewicz scored six and stole eight.
Hinska scored 25 to lead Posen, Meyers finished with 14, and Sharpe had 10.
Vikings 16 10 21 9 -- 56
Trojans 15 18 13 23 -- 69
The semifinal at East Lansing was against Athens, which defeated FP in the 2012 semifinals. FP rocketed away early, scoring the first nine points, but it proved to be anything but an easy night.
After FP led 14-6 after one, Athens closed the gap. With three minutes left till halftime, Lexi picked up her third foul and went to the bench. From there, Athens outscored FP 9-4 and went up 25-23 on free throws just before halftime.
It stayed that way well into the third quarter before Campbell’s rebound basket tied it—but moments later, she injured her right thumb during a scramble and went to the bench. Gussert put FP ahead with a free throw and basket, Athens tied it, and then, with 2:02 left in the third quarter, Gussert was whistled for her fourth foul.
Cambell, still getting her thumb iced, and Gussert could only watch from the bench as Athens’ Audrey Oswalt make both her free throws to put Athens ahead 30-28. But Nylund stole the ball, made a layup and later added a jumper—two clutch baskets that kept FP within one, 33-32, after three quarters.
Lexi returned as the fourth quarter began, and the entire team pulled together. Jessica Bawyn stole the ball. Gussert hit a two and then a three, putting FP back in front. Mary Grandahl and Nylund both got important rebounds. Adel Isaacson got a steal.
Meanwhile, Athens struggled with turnovers, missed shots and fouls. FP got into the bonus. Stankewicz and Gussert made free throws. Sierra Robarge sank a three and later added a layup.
That made it 13 straight points for the Lady Trojans, and it became 17: Forest Park shut out Athens 17-0 in the fourth quarter. Despite the Indians’ best efforts, they were never able to lure Lexi into picking up her fifth foul.
Though missing five minutes of game time, Lexi still led both teams with 20 points, plus 11 rebounds. Stankewicz scored 10 plus five assists. Campbell (8), Nylund (6) and Robarge (5) all boosted the total. Nylund had four assists and three steals.
For Athens, Oswalt led with 15, and Allison Fuller had 10.
Trojans 14 9 9 17 -- 49
Indians 6 19 8 0 -- 33
At last, the finals. Forest Park vs. Sacred Heart for the state title.
The lead flipped back and forth seven times in the first half of the season’s final game. Campbell, her thumb taped up, sank three triples in the first quarter. Gussert made one three and passed to Nylund for two more hoops.
FP led 18-12 after the first quarter, but a fast 8-0 blitz by Sacred Heart, including three hoops in a row by Sara Hansen, put the Irish in front. Kelsi Hendrickson’s three kept the Lady Trojans close, and her off-balance two as the first half ended put FP ahead 27-26 at the break.
It stayed close for much of the third quarter. At times, the Lady Trojans struggled on offense—nobody’s at their best after spending four straight nights in strange beds. At others, points came easier. Averi Gamble scored six for Sacred Heart early in the third, but Lexi hit two shots, and Nylund made a three. It was a 34-34 tie with 3:15 left in the third.
Then the Lady Trojans got hot. Gussert scored on a rebound, Campbell stroked in a three, and Robarge converted Lexi’s outlet pass. Trojans, 41-34. They led 43-38 after three.
Baskets by Stankewicz, Isaacson and Gussert made it 49-40 with 5:38 left. Then FP started missing shots again—five straight. Still, FP led 50-42 with 2:42 left in the season.
Gamble scored for the Irish—50-44. Nylund was fouled, putting FP in the bonus, but her shot missed. Trojan fouls on Campbell and Stankewicz. Gamble was fouled and made her second freebie—50-45. Then an Irish steal, and Lexie Methner hit a shot at the top—50-47. An instant later, Riley Terwilliger swiped the inbounds pass and scored—50-49 with 1:10 left.
FP still led, but the Irish had stolen all the momentum. An FP shot missed. Lexi blocked one at the other end. Irish timeout with 29.7 left. Coming out of it, Terwilliger got open in the left corner. A three-point swish! Irish in front, 52-50. Lexi came back and was fouled while shooting with 16.5 seconds left. She missed both free throws.
Two time-outs. Two FP fouls put Sacred Heart on the line. Hansen made both her freebies—Irish, 54-50. At the other end, Lexi posted up on top and fired. Three! It’s 54-53 with 3.7 seconds left.
But don’t look for a storybook ending, because there was none. Methner was fouled and closed out the win on the free throw line. Sacred Heart made 5 of 6 freebies in the fourth quarter, 9 of 10 in the second half. FP made 1 of 5 in the fourth quarter and didn’t step to the line in the first three quarters.
Lexi led the Trojans with 17 points, and Campbell scored 15. Nylund had nine, and Hendrickson added five. For Sacred Heart, Gamble led with 25, Hansen scored 14, and Terwilliger scored 11.
Gamble was a big factor in Sacred Heart’s win—sizewise and otherwise. An inch or two taller than Lexi’s 6-1, she was solid as a sequoia in the post. While her game is much more one-dimensional than Lexi, who can do it anywhere on the floor, Gamble did her job very well, scoring on 10 of her 12 shots from the floor, making 5 of 6 free throws and getting 11 rebounds, including seven offensive boards.
They helped Sacred Heart to a 17-10 edge in second chance points. Add that to the Irish’s 9-1 edge at the free throw line.
Lexi made 7 of 21 her shots (including 2 of 8 3-point tries) and 1 of 4 at the line. She had 12 rebounds, one on offense. No other Trojan had more than Nylund’s six. Lexi also had four blocked shots and led her team with three steals. She had four assists—Stankewicz led FP with six.
Tears? They were abundant after the game. Nobody can question how hard these girls played, how much they have sacrificed for years, how much they wanted the state title and the perfect season. Coming up short … it hurt a lot.
But didn’t they have a great time! Think about what the Lady Trojans accomplished this season. A team record that will last for years and years. Lexi Gussert’s scoring records may stand unchallenged long after we are all in our graves. How truly blessed this team was!
And how truly blessed Forest Park basketball fans have been, for the privilege of seeing a team whose memory will live forever! Those last three minutes don’t matter. Not if you saw the 861 minutes that happened first.
Trojans 18 9 16 10 -- 53
Irish 12 14 12 18 -- 56