By Ben Murphy
Clare pitched a shutout in the second quarter of Tuesday’s regional semi-final at Central Montcalm, giving the Pioneers the surge they needed to pick up a 48-31 win over Shepherd.
“I thought our second quarter was really good,” Clare head coach Matt Rodenbo said. “We shut some things down that they were trying to do. I don’t know if we were playing that much better of if they just started to miss. It seemed like they made everything early on.”
The first quarter was back-and-forth, with Clare taking a 2-0 lead on a deep two-pointer by Lindsay Winter. After that, the Lady Blue Jays carried leads of 4-2, 6-4 and held their biggest lead at 12-8 on a shot by Hannah Yesmunt with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Shepherd’s offense would run dry for the next 11 minutes however, as Clare began a 20-0 run that lapsed into the second half.
Ashley Petree started the run with a lay-in to bring Clare to within 12-10 and Alex Stark hit a three-pointer with 20 seconds left in the frame to put the Pioneers up 13-12 after the first.
“I felt if we kept playing our game we’d be OK but you’re always concerned when the other team his making shots on you,” Rodenbo said. “We started seeing what they wanted to do and took a few things away from there.”
It was all Clare in the second quarter, as Winter scored the first seven points in the frame, starting the assault with a step-back three-pointer followed by a drive up the middle of the Shepherd defense and another drive down the right side of the lane that put the Pioneers up 20-12.
The Blue Jays called a timeout midway through the quarter, but it was to no avail, as after the timeout, Petree rebounded an off-the-mark Shepherd shot and raced to the other end of the court for a coast-to-coast lay-in.
Winter hit a mid-range shot Clare’s next trip down the court and Melissa Benchley stole the ball away from a Shepherd ball-handler late in the half, racing down to the other end to sink a lay-up with just four seconds to play in the half to give the Pioneers a 26-12 edge at the break.
“We missed back-to-back layups and that turned the tide,” Shepherd head coach Jack Carbee said. “That lowered our confidence and Clare hit a few shots and went on a big run. If we make those layups and hit a few more shots we’re right there.”
Petree started the second half’s scoring by getting a Shepherd player to bite on a pump-fake and took the ball to the basket for an easy lay-in that put Clare up 28-12, though Yesmunt finally stopped the Clare run with a drive to the basket to make it 28-14.
The Lady Jays got the ball after a scoreless Clare possession and appeared to have a clean shot to further cut into to the Pioneer lead, but Petree blocked a Shepherd player’s shot, leading to another Pioneer scoring run.
“I thought Petree was outstanding, she had a double-double and that’s just on offense,” Rodenbo said. “On defense she plays hard. She brings a lot of heart and it’s contagious to the other girls.”
Winter scored six straight points for Clare in the middle of the quarter, getting two free-throws to fall, then scored on a put-back basket and busted out a baby-right hook for good measure to put Clare up 34-14.
Shepherd got a pair of three-pointers by Taylor Cole, including one in the finals seconds of the period to bring the score to 38-22 entering the fourth.
Lauren Snyder flipped in a close range shot to continue Shepherd’s late surge, making the score 38-26 midway through the fourth, but Clare closed the game on a 10-5 run to seal off the win.
English was a perfect four-of-four from the line down the stretch and Winter hit both of her charity shots to squander any Shepherd comeback thoughts.
“Clare is just a real good team,” Carbee said. “We knew we had to play well to beat them and we just didn’t play well enough tonight.”
Winter led Clare with 21 points, five rebounds and three assists, Petree had 10 points and 10 rebounds, English had six points, Benchley and Corrine Wezensky both had four and Stark had three.
On Saturday, the Clare girls claimed the Reed City district title, topping 10th-ranked Big Rapids 60-48 for its first district title since 2011 and seventh in school history. The game was originally scheduled for Friday night, but a power outage in Reed City pushed the game back a day.
“Moving it back a day gave us an extra day to prepare and an opportunity to scout Shepherd,” Rodenbo said.
The Lady Pioneers scorched the net in the opening quarter, getting an early three-pointer by Stark and three three-balls from Benchley.
“In over 20 years of coaching, Benchley’s performance was one of the most impressive quarters I have had a player play,” Rodenbo said. “(First) she threw-up an air-ball. The crowd was on her (but) she proceeded to knock down three three-point shots in a row to ignite us. She set the tone.”
Stark and English made a three-pointer apiece in the second to keep Clare rolling and Benchley and Petree both had four points in the frame to keep Clare ahead 35-22 at the half.
Stark and English hit a three-pointer apiece in the third, though Big Raids outscored Clare 16-10 in the frame to close the gap to 47-38 entering the fourth.
In the fourth, Winter had six points and Petree had four to help Clare hang on to the 12-point win and district title.
“I was so happy for the team,” Rodenbo said. “To win a district title is special but to knock off an undefeated team to do it makes it that much more.”
Winter led Clare with 15 points, six assists and five steals, Benchley had 14 points, five steals and four rebounds, English had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists, with Petree and Stark netting nine points apiece with Petree also grabbing nine boards. Wezensky added one point and seven rebounds.
Clare (22-1) played against Muskegon Oakridge (22-2) on Thursday in the regional finals, where the Pioneers could win their first regional championship in the girls’ program history. The winner of that games moves on to Tuesday’s quarterfinal at Houghton Lake, against either Kingsford (19-4) or Bullock Creek (21-3).
“They’re a solid team,” Rodenbo said of Oakridge. “We’ll have to play well to beat them.”