By Ben Murphy
Bullock Creek got hot late in the third quarter and Clare, after scorching the net all night went cold. This proved to be a season ending formula for the Lady Pioneers in Tuesday night’s quarterfinal contest at Houghton Lake, suffering as Clare suffered a 57-56 loss.
“The girls are heartbroken, I feel terrible for them,” Clare head coach Matt Rodenbo said. “I know it’s going to be a tough night for them but looking back they can be proud of what they’ve accomplished this year.”
A Clare loss seemed out of the question most of the night, as the Pioneers were seemingly in control of the game, carrying a lead throughout the first half and led by as much as 15 early in the third quarter.
The Lady Lancers cut the Clare lead to 49-41 late in the third quarter, but Melissa Benchley swiped the ball from a Bullock Creek player and raced down the other end for a fast-break layup moments before the third quarter buzzer sounded, giving the Lady Pioneers a 51-41 entering the fourth.
Bullock Creek continued its surge in the fourth quarter however, getting an Alyssa Mudd jumper to fall in to cut it to 51-43, and after a failed Clare possession hints that it may not be Clare’s night started to come out.
Lancer Ellie Jungel fired a pass off the hands of a teammate and the ball appeared to be headed out of bounds. Instead, it hit the knee of an official and eventually found its way back into the hands of Jungel, who drilled a three-pointer from straight-on to cut the gap to 51-46.
“They hit some big shots, credit goes to them for making those shots,” Rodenbo said. “We started playing to not lose instead of to win.”
Both teams added single free throws to make it 52-47, with Juengel hitting another Creek shot to make it 52-49 with four minutes to play.
Clare had its lead trimmed to 53-51, but Winter righted the ship momentarily by hitting a step-back three pointer to extend Clare’s lead to 56-51 with just under three minutes to play.
Creek’s Halee Nieman answered with a three-ball of her own however, making it 56-54 with 2:45 to play and after several failed possessions by both teams, Hannah Heldt scored a fast-break layup to tie the game at 56-all with a minute to play.
The teams traded turnovers for the next 20 seconds, but Heldt was fouled driving through the lane, and hit one of two free-throws to give the Lancers a 57-56 lead, their first lead since the first quarter.
In the waning seconds of the game, the Pioneers had two chances to sink a game winning shot, but the Lancers first successfully trapped Winter, forcing a Pioneer timeout with six seconds left, and then forced Clare into a final possession without getting a quality shot off to finish off the stunning come from behind win.
“We had talked before the game that with playing better teams runs like this were going to happen,” Bullock Creek head coach Justin Freeland said. “We had to keep our poise and not play scoreboard as much. Luckily, I have girls who believe that.”
Heldt, who gave the Lancers the lead late, also gave them the lead early, hitting the game’s first bucket on a steal and fast-break to go up 2-0 early.
Winter answered with a three-pointer to give Clare a 3-2 lead, and B-C’s Nieman later tied the game at 7-all on two free throws.
Alex Stark sank a three-pointer to put Clare back up 10-7, and a late steal and fast-break by Benchley put the Pioneers ahead 17-14 at the end of the first quarter.
The Lancers tied the game at 17 with a shot from three-land, though Courtney English put Clare back up by getting a three-pointer to roll in from the left side of the court.
Stark helped increase the lead to 22-17 on a 16-footer, and English forced a Lancer timeout after sinking her second three-ball in as many tries.
After the Creek timeout, Benchley got in on the scoring, hitting a three pointer to put Clare up 28-17 and Clare added two free throws by Petree, a hoop from Stark and an and-one play by Winter to give the Pioneers a 35-24 lead at the half.
Bullock Creek hit a quick free throw out of the break to make it 35-25, but Winter hit a three pointer from straight-on and Stark netted an easy lay-in to give Clare its biggest lead of the game at 40-25, forcing a Lancer timeout with 5:47 left in the third.
“We were very balanced in the first half,” Rodenbo said. “That led to us getting a nice lead. That kind of went away in the fourth quarter and we stopped doing what we were doing and we started looking at Lindsay to do everything. In a big game, that can’t happen.”
Bullock Creek came out of the timeout and hit two quick three-pointers, and though Wezensky stopped the Lancer run with a lay-up, the Lancers got another there-pointer from Morgan McGinnis. Then, Nieman drilled a deep two-pointer and after a hoop by Winter, Nieman hit yet another three pointer and seemingly in the blink of an eye Clare’s big lead was down to 44-39 with 2:11 to go in the third.
Petree drove to the basket for a hoop to cool the Lancer run momentarily, with Clare adding a three-pointer by Winter and Benchley’s late steal and fast-break hoop to lead 51-41 entering the fourth.
“It’s one of those things where you have to give them credit for making shots and offensively we weren’t moving well or hitting shots,” Freeland said of falling behind in the game. “They’re an outstanding team and very well coached. Winter is legit and they have talent surrounding her as well.”
Winter led Clare with 19 points, Stark and Petree both had nine, English had seven, with Benchley and Wezesnky both netting six.
On Thursday, March 7 the Pioneers topped Muskegon Oakridge 51-34 to win the first regional championship in history of the girl’s basketball program.
“It feels great, I am so happy for them,” Rodenbo said after the win. “They worked so hard for this, they deserve it.”
Clare struggled with Oakridge’s Keyara Wiard early on, letting her score eight points in the first quarter as they led Clare 12-11 after the first, despite five points in the quarter by English.
“We did struggle, we were tentative,” Rodenbo said of the first quarter, “We made a few adjustments and the kids started executing.”
Clare held Oakridge to just five points in the second quarter and netted 14 themselves, getting five points from Benchley and Winter, including a three-pointer by Winter to lead 25-17 at the half.
Benchley hit a three in the third and was aided by four points apiece by Wezensky and English to pave the Pioneers to a 38-26 lead entering the fourth.
Clare hit seven free throws in the final quarter to preserve the win.
“The balance of our team right now is outstanding,” Rodenbo said. “It is hard for teams to just key in on Lindsay. Petree is playing great basketball right now. She plays so much bigger than her size. Benchley was a little under the weather and didn’t get a lot of sleep on Wednesday night but came out and played very well. Ashley and Melissa do so much defensively for us. Things that do not show up in the stat line but are instrumental in our success. Our seniors as a whole have shown great determination and leadership.”
Petree led Clare with 13 points and eight rebounds, Winter had 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals, Benchley and English both had 10 points, with both adding three assists as well. Wezensky added six points, six rebounds and one block and Stark netted one point.
Clare finishes the season 23-2 and lose seniors Benchley, Petree, English, Paige Onstott and Liz Fancon
“I coached these seniors in seventh and eighth grade,” Rodenbo said. “I knew they were a special group the first day of practice. I am just so proud of them. They are excellent basketball players but even better kids. It will be hard to replace them, no question. Benchley and Petree bring that determination that is not commonly found in players. English stepped up this year and became the player we had always thought she would be.”
Returning to next year’s team will be juniors Winter, who could become the school’s all-time scoring leader early next season, Stark, Wezensky, Tara Pummell, Amanda Yats, Haley Pulcifer, Kodi Humphrey and sophomore post-season call-up Olivia Cooper.
“We will have some players that have a lot of experience back next year with Winter, Stark and Wezensky,” Rodenbo said. “A lot is going to depend on the development of the other players. We had several seniors step up this year. We are going to need that from our younger players. We are looking for players that will be willing to put the time in. We will need them to get in the weight room and to attend individual camps in the summer.”