OTSEGO – The Marshall girls basketball team is headed back to the Breslin Center.
The defending Class B state champion Redhawks punched their ticket to the state semifinals by way of a 49-27 quarterfinal victory over fourth-ranked Grand Rapids Catholic Central on Tuesday at Otsego High School.
Marshall (23-2) will face second-ranked Detroit Country Day (24-1) on Friday at the Breslin Center at Michigan State University.
Redhawks’ senior forward Nikki Tucker was dominant in the quarterfinal, outscoring the Cougars by herself with a career-high 28 points. She also added seven rebounds and three assists.
“It’s really easy when you have a huge crowd and the energy is working,” said Tucker, who is committed to Division II Embry-Riddle. “It all came together and we have such a great city.”
Marshall head coach Sal Konkle credited Tucker’s work ethic for her scoring outburst.
“She’s worked hard all year,” Konkle said. “The other kids worked hard too. They’re doing what they need to do. Today it’s Nikki. We talk about not having a star on the team – well she was the star tonight. She couldn’t have done it without the other five girls that played.”
Marshall led wire-to-wire, jumping out to a 14-6 lead after the opening quarter of play.
Grand Rapids Catholic struggled to get its offense going in the second quarter, as Marshall held the Cougars to just three points in the period, giving Marshall a 20-9 halftime lead.
A 3-pointer by Grand Rapids Catholic senior center Kyra Bussell cut Marshall’s lead to 41-27 with 5:00 remaining in regulation, before Tucker scored three consecutive baskets to end the run and any comeback hopes by the Cougars.
It was a much different game than the last two times the teams met. Marshall defeated Grand Rapids Catholic in last season’s state quarterfinal by 11 points, but the Cougars got a measure of revenge at the Ann Arbor Pioneer Showcase back on Jan. 28 when they defeated the Redhawks by eight.
Marshall senior guard Taryn Long stepped up as fellow senior guard Jill Konkle, an All-State selection as a junior, was shadowed all night. Long finished with eight points and two assists.
Marshall junior forward Natalie Tucker was effective in the paint, despite a distinct size disadvantage to Grand Rapids Catholic’s physical post players. She finished with eight points and a game-high nine rebounds.
“Coach told us we had to work on defense and rebounding a lot more than we did the first time we played them,” Natalie Tucker said. “And when we focused on the things we didn’t do well, we ended up beating the team by over 20… It was a motivation (losing the last meeting). When we lost, we wanted to come back and prove to everyone that we could do what we did last year. We lost one player, but that doesn’t mean we’re a different team.”
Marshall will likely be underdogs again in the Final Four, as the other three remaining teams finished the regular season ranked higher than the Redhawks. Of course, none of that matters to Konkle and her team.
“I’m so proud of the kids. I told a couple people today it would have been a big disappointment and I would have felt like I failed had we not gotten back there,” Konkle said. “We always say one more game, and now if we can just win in the semifinals, then if we’re lucky enough to win that, if we can just win the finals. We’re right where we want to be.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at email@example.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley