For a third consecutive year, the Athens girls’ basketball team will play on the state’s biggest stage.
The fifth-ranked Indians punched their ticket to East Lansing on Tuesday with a 39-33 victory over Lansing Christian in a Class D state quarterfinal at Harper Creek High School.
With the win, Athens (22-3) returns to the Breslin Center at Michigan State University for the third straight year, and will take on top-ranked Crystal Falls Forest Park (25-0) on Thursday in a state semifinal contest.
“To get there once is a thrill,” said Athens head coach Calvin Quist. “To do it three times in a row is like a miracle I guess.”
In a quarterfinal contest that was nip-and-tuck the whole way, Athens rallied from a fourth quarter deficit and put the game away late thanks to some clutch free throws.
Trailing by one point entering the fourth quarter, Allison Fuller knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:05 remaining and gave Athens a 28-26 lead. From there, the junior guard found a way to get to the free-throw line, where she shot 6-of-10 down the stretch. Her two free throws with 1:19 left gave Athens a five-point lead and helped the Indians ice the game.
Fuller, who scored 11 of her 12 points in the fourth quarter, said the 3-pointer gave her confidence down the stretch after struggling with her shot through the first three quarters.
“In practice I haven’t been making my free throws lately. I was hot in warmup, but not in the first three quarters. So I basically told myself I had to make them in order to win,” Fuller said. “Before the game coach (Daryl) Dexter told me that big players make big shots in big games at the right time… I wasn’t necessarily looking for the ball, or they weren’t looking to give me the ball, but it just turned out that way.”
Lansing Christian (11-12) tried to get the ball in the hands of 6-foot senior guard Mikayla Terry. The Northern Kentucky commit finished with a team-high 14 points, including eight in the final period, but the Athens defense made her work for every point.
“We find a way to win, but I think we’re going to have to have a little more offensive firepower,” said Quist, in regards to an upcoming state semifinal matchup with No. 1-ranked Forest Park. “Our defense is pretty much a constant. We’ve been defending well all year long, it’s just that our offense is sporadic. I’m hoping when we get to the Breslin Center we get a little bit hot. We have some nice perimeter shooters, they hit some big shots, but haven’t been consistent.”
The Athens defense was led on the night by senior Allysha Beal, who tallied six steals to go with her four points and three rebounds. One of three Indians to have made it to the Breslin Center in three straight seasons, Beal said her team continues to prove doubters wrong.
“This one is important simply because it’s our senior year and my senior year, and it proves to everyone that we’re good enough to be there and we can do it again,” Beal said. “I like being (underdog) because people don’t expect us to be there. People didn’t expect us to be there our first year, or our second year, or our third year. So I feel we keep surprising everybody.”
Despite some poor outside shooting in the quarterfinal, Athens recorded 13 second-chance points in the contest. Much of that was due to the work inside by senior forward Audrey Oswalt, who pulled down nine rebounds to go with her team-high 14 points. Junior forward Hailee Hurst came off the bench and also provided a boost on the glass, hauling in eight rebounds.
As a program, Athens recently won its fifth regional crown in six seasons. In 2012, the Indians lost in the state championship game, followed by a state semifinal appearance in 2013.
Quist said the driving force behind a third-straight trip to the Breslin Center is a team that has a clear understanding of its goals.
“They’ve been there. We’ve never won it. We want to get there, get over the hump and win one — so that’s been their goal,” Quist said. “We’ve had our goals of the conference championship and try to go further in the tournament than in the past, and that’s winning it. I think that’s what their eyes are on — that championship.”