Athens had the best girls’ basketball player in the state and the top-ranked team in Class D on the ropes on Thursday in East Lansing.
But an unfortunately-timed scoring drought proved too much to overcome in the final quarter, as Crystal Falls Forest Park pulled away late for a 49-33 victory over the fifth-ranked Indians in a state semifinal played at the Michigan State University Breslin Center.
Athens (22-4) took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter, but the Trojans (26-0) held the Indians scoreless in the final frame by ending the contest on a 17-0 run.
“I just think we got cold,” said Athens head coach Calvin Quist. “Sometimes during the season we’ve had spurts like that, but the defense has bailed us out… But then we fell behind and started pressing (to make shots), and that makes it more difficult for the shots to fall.”
The loss spoiled Athens hopes of returning to the state finals for the first time since 2012. The Indians made three-straight trips to the Breslin Center, falling in the semifinals in 2013.
“It’s a thrill the first time, but to get here three times in a row is a miracle,” Quist said. “We really wanted to get over the hump this year. We knew we were going against a very good team, but still felt we had a chance at beating them.”
Forest Park was led on the night by Lexi Gussert with 20 points to go with 11 rebounds. The 6-foot guard/forward who was recently named Miss Basketball averages 29.4 points per game, but was limited for much of the first half and early part of the second half because of foul trouble.
“A couple stupid fouls on my part, but the team really stepped up,” Gussert said. “Being a leader, you don’t want to be sitting the bench, especially in a semifinal game. So yeah, it was a little bit frustrating… I was ready to play, it was the most I’ve sat all year, so I was pumped up.”
With 6:45 left in the fourth quarter, Gussert knocked down a jumper to put her team up 34-33. She then nailed a 3-pointer with 5:30 left to build the Trojans’ lead to 37-33.
Then with 2:35 left in the contest, Forest Parks’ Maria Stankewicz hit a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game and essentially seal a spot in Saturday’s Class D state final.
“We had a real battle against a very good Athens team. We knew that they would come in here and give us a scrappy game,” said Forest Park head coach Jeff Syrjanen. “We felt coming in that if we could sustain their pressure and their press, we had a good chance.
“In the fourth quarter, as in many of our games, we finally wear teams down. And I think that has a lot to do with our depth and our aggressive defense we play all game.”
Athens was led in the contest by senior forward Audrey Oswalt with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Despite giving up several inches to Gussert, she pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds.
“Her motor is always running. She goes hard,” Quist said of Oswalt. “She’s a great athlete. And when you take that and her determination, that’s why she’s a great rebounder.”
Oswalt was one of three Indians to play in their third straight semifinal along with senior Allysha Beal (four points, four rebounds) and junior Allison Fuller (eight points).
Beal transferred to Athens as a sophomore, and said she never envisioned finishing her prep basketball career with three semifinal appearances.
“I had plans to go here, to be at the Breslin Center the first year I came here. Not only did we get to the Breslin Center, but the state final. That was a miracle in itself,” Beal said. “The second year came around we said, ‘Let’s do it again,’ but fell short. My senior year – the most important year because you want to go out with a bang – I was shocked we got here because each year is a whole different team. I’m just so proud of my team for getting here and I’m so happy I moved here my sophomore year to be a part of this and be a part of a great team, a great coaching staff and a great community.”
Fuller added that the end of the Indians’ season just means there is more work to be done.
“We can’t dwell on this season. We had a great season and I’m proud of my team. But we have to get ready for next season as soon as possible,” Fuller said. “It comes up quick. And the more we prepare the better chance we have of getting back here.”