By Ben Murphy
Clare and Reed City were deadlocked in a 7-all tie midway through the first quarter of Wednesday night’s district semi-final. That’s when the Lady Pioneers caught fire, hitting four three-pointers in less than three minutes to storm ahead 19-9 after the first quarter, paving way to a 61-35 blowout win for Clare.
“I think it was a good start, no question,” Clare head coach Matt Rodenbo said. “We got a little bit of nervous energy out quickly and go better as the game went on. These girls have a lot of experience and I knew it would happen sooner rather than later.”
The Lady Coyotes appeared ready to give Clare a battle early on, matching the Pioneers punch-for-punch the first five minutes.
However, after Reed City’s Makenzie Switzer drilled a deep two-pointer to tie the game at 7-7, it was all Clare.
Courtney English got the scoring barrage started with a three-ball from the left corner and Lindsay Winter followed that by getting a three-pointer from straight-on to roll in after hitting the front of the rim.
Tia Lintemuth hit a pair of free-throws to bring the Coyotes back to within 13-9 late in the quarter but Alex Stark answered that with a wide open three-pointer and Winter finished the quarter with a quick step-back three-pointer from straight-on to give Clare a 19-9 lead after one.
“I just think we have a lot of weapons and a lot of girls that can put the ball in the basket and I knew by how we were playing defensively that Reed City wasn’t going to shoot a high percentage over the entire 32 minutes.”
Winter hit yet another three-pointer to get the scoring started in the second and after a Coyote basket on their next possession, Winter heaved a long pass to English, who scored an easy lay-in to make it 24-11.
The Pioneers continued to roll, getting baskets by Winter, Corrine Wezensky, Liz Fancon and Stark to go up 32-11.
Reed City’s Emma Lockhart ended the scoring run by getting a steal and a fast-break basket to cut the lead to 32-13, though Winter answered with a free-throw and she closed the half driving to the lane and effortlessly flipping the ball in the basket to give Clare a commanding 35-13 lead at the half.
It was more of the same in the third, with the Pioneers getting a tough lay-in by Ashley Petree and a put-back basket by Wezensky to get things going.
Reed City’s Alaina Woodard banked in a three-pointer to give a glimmer of hope for the Coyotes at 44-21, but Melissa Benchley drilled a three-ball of her own to put Clare up 47-21.
English caught a bomb of a pass from Winter for a fast-break hoop to give the Pioneers a 49-21 lead, with Reed City closing the frame’s scoring with a deep two-pointer by Karah Hensel to make it 49-23 entering the fourth.
Winter and English helped put salt in the Coyote wounds in the early portion of the fourth, with Winter firing crisp fast-break passes on consecutive Clare possessions to English who made good on both to extend the lead to 53-23.
From here, the squads emptied the benches, with Clare getting four points by Kodi Humphrey and four more by Wezensky to finish off the night’s scoring.
Winter led Clare with 19 points, hitting three three-pointers and added nine assists and eight rebounds. English had 13 points, Wezensky had 10 points and 12 rebounds, Stark had five points, with Benchley, Petree and Humphrey all finishing with four and Fancon netted two.
Reed City was led by Lockhart with eight points with Switzer scoring seven.
“Fancon gave us a great lift off the bench and that was good to see,” Rodenbo said. “She did really well rebounding and I was proud of the way she played. The Lockhart girl is outstanding but English and Winter did a great job on her.
On Thursday, Feb. 21 the Lady Pioneers closed out the regular season with a 54-38 win at Farwell to finish Jack Pine Conference play unbeaten.
Clare had a strong first quarter, outscoring Farwell 25-6 in the frame and pulled ahead 42-9 at the half. Winter scored 16 points in the first half with English and Benchley both scoring eight. Benchley hit a pair of three-pointers in the first quarter.
The Lady Eagles improved their play in the second half, getting a 12-8 scoring edge in the third to cut the Clare lead to 50-21 entering the fourth.
Farwell had its best frame in the final stanza, outscoring Clare 17-4 to bring the final to 54-38.
Winter led Clare with 16 points, Stark had 10, Benchley and English both had eight and Wezensky netted six.
Caron White led Farwell with 11 points and seven rebounds, Kate Saupe had 10 points and four boards and Jenna Hamming had six points and four rebounds.
Clare (20-1 overall, 14-0 JPC Associated Press Honorable Mention) plays Big Rapids (22-0, Ranked 10th) tonight in the district championship. A win would give them its first district championship since 2011 and a berth in the Central Montcalm district which will be played on Monday and Wednesday.
“We’ve been watching Reed City and Big Rapids a long time, we’ve scouted this district a lot,” Rodenbo said. “(Big Rapids) is an outstanding team and we’re going to have to play well. We just have to play hard every possession and see where the chips fall.”